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1984

Theatre Pro Rata
Directed by Carin Bratlie

Adapting George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four for the stage could have been a fairly straightforward endeavor given the book’s neat three-act structure. The best adaptations, however, create something unique rather than merely reiterating the source material, and that is clearly what playwright Michael Gene Sullivan was trying to accomplish in his 1984, currently being mounted in a brief two-week run by Theatre Pro Rata. But while Sullivan deserves credit for his efforts to do something innovative with one of the most widely read novels in the history of English literature, those efforts do not prove entirely successful, leaving a noticeable gap between the quality of the material deriving directly from Orwell and that introduced by Sullivan.

The first thing anyone who is familiar with the novel will notice is that Sullivan starts at the end, with protagonist Winston Smith (Grant Henderson)’s interrogation for alleged “thoughtcrime” in the euphemistically titled Ministry of Love. A major aspect of this interrogation — and the mechanism by which the first three-quarters of the book makes its way into the play — is the acting-out of scenes from Winston’s diary in front of him by four anonymous members of the ruling party. This is Sullivan’s strongest contribution; after all, Winston knows from the start that his personal rebellion against the party cannot end well, and having his story related back to him while he lies shackled in his prison cell is an effective way of dramatizing his fatalistic premonition. The scenes between Winston (played in these scenes by William Goblirsch) and his lover Julia (Emily Dussault) are particularly poignant in this context.

Where the adaptation falters a bit is in the behavior of the party members, who periodically break out of character to proclaim their loyalty to the party and its leader Big Brother, confront Winston and each other over perceived outrages, and teeter dangerously close to thoughtcrimes of their own. Many of these episodes seem half-finished, with the characters coming across as caricatures, and occasional attempts at humor fall flat. This doesn’t appear to be due to any failings on the part of the four actors, all of whom have memorable moments when portraying scenes from Winston’s story. (Indeed, Brian Columbus, who plays the shrillest of the party members, also gives a touching rendition of Tom Parsons, the true believer who is horrified to learn that he has been committing thoughtcrime in his sleep.) These crudely drawn characters just never find their place in the story.

Things improve notably in the second act with the arrival of O’Brien (John Middleton), Winston’s ally turned nemesis — a man who has “long ago known, examined, and rejected” all of Winston’s ideas about truth, sanity, and freedom. Middleton is a nonchalantly twisted O’Brien, while Henderson gives a chilling portrayal of the gradual eradication of everything Winston thinks he knows about himself and his ability to maintain his dignity in the face of physical and psychological torture.

Fans of Nineteen Eighty-Four will definitely want to see Sullivan’s version in Theatre Pro Rata’s production, even if not every aspect of it lives up to the high standard set by Orwell. 1984 plays at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis through Oct. 26.

Photos by Charles Gorrill

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.