As one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberal voices, Tim Robbins has never been afraid to shove his political views in people’s faces. His brand of activism entails an all-out public assault.
Bringing George Orwell’s “1984" to the stage with the Actors’ Gang, Robbins uses the classic über-literary metaphor as a vehicle for political wrath. This revival production, at REDCAT through July 6, knocks subtlety over the head with a baseball bat and takes no prisoners in its scorched-earth campaign against indifference.
Using an adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan, the production distills Orwell’s nightmare allegory to its barest essence. Winston Smith (Cameron Dye) is a political prisoner in a totalitarian state. Through a series of interrogations and torture sessions, he recounts his affair with a female citizen and his involvement with a rebellious breakaway faction.
The play takes place in a monochromatic star chamber where party members (VJ Foster, Brian T. Finney, Kaili Hollister and Steven M. Porter) take turns abusing their captive. The supporting cast also doubles as characters from Winston’s life, suggesting that the political and the personal are one and the same, linked in a vicious cycle of retribution and reprisal. As a piece of agit-prop theater, “1984" is unapologetically rude, noisy and full of itself. Robbins directs with a pugnacity that’s clearly meant to get on people’s nerves: He uses harsh lighting, aggressive sound design and smug caricatures as a way to pump up the aesthetic volume to earsplitting decibels.
It can be too much at times. But to complain that “1984" is heavy-handed is like faulting Bertolt Brecht’s plays for being distanced and unemotional. This is activist theater in the grandest sense of the term. Robbins (who is the company’s artistic director) and his cast flay their dead horse and then dance wildly around its funeral pyre. One of the production’s best assets is Dye, who plays Winston with a fascinating grogginess -- equally sleep-deprived and hung over on Big Brother’s truth serum. With his cadaverous body and Michael Stipe physiognomy, the actor curiously suggests a political prisoner cum rock star. His climactic showdown with the grand inquisitor (Keythe Farley) is a physically demanding sequence of escalating punishments.
“You must be precise,” repeats an offstage voice. True to Orwell’s call for linguistic clarity, the Actors’ Gang emphasizes laser-sharp line readings and crisp diction. First produced by the company in 2006, “1984" has been refined and reworked during a recent international tour. The result has the concentrated but still devastating energy of a hand grenade. As a director, Robbins doesn’t leave room for moral ambiguity -- either you agree with him or you agree with him. In case you missed his point, the program spells out the play’s Bush administration parallels.
Both sophomoric and intellectually mature, “1984" is the stage equivalent of an angry young man railing against the world, its sincerity often outstripping its ability but its ire (and heart) always in the right place.