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Rule, Oceania!

Rule, Oceania!

Grainy indirect lighting, flat-black walls and an industrial stamped-steel floor pit firmly place the latest Actors’ Gang play in the world of 1984. Rather than being a story set in a West Hollywood bar 22 years ago, though, this is Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s novel about a totalitarian tomorrow ruled by an enigmatic leader named Big Brother. Sullivan has boiled down the book’s 300 pages to a scant 100 minutes, culling the story’s political essentials while retaining the melancholy whimsy of its hero’s dream life. Gone are Orwell’s London setting and overt anti-Stalinist satire, replaced by a more recognizable landscape of social conformity and political fear that mischievously suggests America in the age of W. Party members address one another as “citizen,” not “comrade,” and their superstate, Oceania, is frequently referred to as the “homeland.”

Sullivan begins the story two-thirds into the book, with Winston Smith (Brent Hinkley) already a prisoner of the Thought Police, confessing both his forbidden love for a young woman, Julia (Kaili Hollister), and the couple’s allegiance to an underground movement committed to overthrowing Big Brother. As time shuttles between present and flashback, the stage remains the same: The ragged and bruised Smith is manacled to the pit of an interrogation room, disembodied voices ask questions and four Party members (Hollister, Brian T. Finney, V.J. Foster and Steven M. Porter) alternately abuse Winston and become characters re-enacting moments from his confession.

We follow Winston as he participates in a frenzied moment of xenophobia and warmongering known as Two Minutes Hate, experiences nostalgia for an unknown past inside a junk shop, rebels through sex and gains enlightenment through a forbidden book. Hinkley is just the right person to play Winston, an actor whose Everyman demeanor allows us to track the life of an everyday “Smith” beyond the interrogation chamber’s confines. The play’s climax occurs when Winston is literally confronted face-to-face with his worst terror, and Hinkley (aided by a truly great prop) helps make it one of the most harrowing moments seen on a local stage.

Director Tim Robbins’ production is decidedly low-tech — suspended rectangles suggest the invasive telescreens that peep into, and eavesdrop on, Winston’s world, but no images flicker across them. Instead, Robbins relies upon the energy of his cast, and the bleak milieu conjured by scenic designers Richard Hoover and Sibyl Wickersheimer, gloomily lit by Bosco Flanagan and sharply accented by David Robbins’ jarring sound, to communicate 1984’s meaning.

Orwell’s novel has said different things to different people over the years. By the Cold War’s early light, the book was immediately taken as an attack on Soviet-style communism; read more closely between the lines, though, Orwell seemed to be telling liberals that playing with socialism was all very good fun until someone lost an eye. Over time, the eponymous year became a metaphor for repressive (or simply overbearing) government, politically correct speech and regimentation. Much of the book can even be taken as an elegy for the simple pleasures of Edwardian England.

Sullivan touches many of these bases, while Robbins’ breakneck orchestration of the playwright’s staccato, catechismic dialogue moves the setting to a more corporate world, underscored by costumer Allison Leach’s replacement of Party members’ blue overalls with identical gray business suits. Winston’s chief confessor, O’Brien (Keythe Farley in a supremely menacing turn), an Inner Party member who is set apart from the others by his red tie, is nothing if not a company executive or human-resources director skilled in the use of positive thinking. This slight shift of emphasis works because, apart from its political observations, 1984 was also very much a British office lampoon, and its characters, with their thwarted ambitions and petty territorial claims, are familiar to readers of countless novels from The Tin Men to Bridget Jones’ Diary.

However, Sullivan’s habit of having the Party members who interrogate and sometimes beat Winston occasionally argue among themselves undercuts the notion that Orwell’s ruling elite is hardwired into the psychology of fanatical certainty called doublethink. Their mild equivocations offer a glimmer of hope in a story that is supposed to be about a world without hope. You can’t maintain all that boot-stamping-on-a-human-face-forever stuff when Winston’s tormentors betray moments of doubt and paranoia.

Althougha sublime current of nostalgia courses through 1984 (the evocations of Winston’s childhood, with its rainy-day games of Snakes and Ladders, are as sentimental as any that Fellini committed to film), treachery remains the key to Orwell’s indictment of the 20th century. It’s not enough that Winston is arrested by a policeman he trusts to be a kindly old shopkeeper, interrogated by a superior he believed was a co-conspirator, or that he ultimately denounces Julia. In Winston’s brave new world, even the weather is a traitor, along with his own body and the English language — including its nursery rhymes.

Betrayal was no abstraction for Orwell. He had seen the Spanish Civil War’s ideals cynically perverted by Moscow-trained Communists and witnessed, with the Stalin-Hitler pact, the 180-degree turn in the British party’s line toward fascism. (In one scene that Sullivan retains from Orwell’s novel, Winston attends a war rally, the name of whose reviled enemy changes halfway through the speeches: “The speaker had switched from one line to the other actually in mid-sentence, not only without a pause, but without even breaking the syntax.”)

We forget that what made 1984 frightening at the time of its publication was not Orwell’s far-fetched prediction of a totalitarian elite forever frozen into power. It terrified because it presumed to describe 1948 — the year of the book’s writing — as though it were ancient, inalterable history. Even still, so much of Orwell’s vision of the political future, from the strangulation of language to the end of privacy, has come to pass, though mostly with our hearty consent.

By far the most disturbing parallel has been our game acceptance of never-ending war and expedient torture — we seem to be thoroughly at peace with these concepts as long as we have enough creature comforts. Today, opinion polls show that Americans demand that there be more public surveillance cameras and are quite agreeable to having their reading and entertainment habits monitored by police agencies. (We don’t mind having our phones tapped, so long as we have a choice of downloadable ring tones.)

It may be argued that Orwell erred by not predicting our lusty embrace of a life of reduced freedoms, but perhaps not even he was pessimistic enough to believe in such a sad possibility.?

1984 | Adapted by MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN from George Orwell’s novel | At Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Through April 8 | (310) 838-4264