Front Row Reviews

“1984” Portrays the Horror of Subjugation

  by Patricia L. Morin — Front Row Review

Top photo: Joseph Patrick O’Malley. Photos by Kevin Berne. 

Aurora’s groundbreaking adaptation of “1984,” skillfully crafted by the versatile Michael Gene Sullivan, serves as a stark reminder that Orwell’s dystopian vision is now our reality.

Many might not remember the whole tale of “1984” but know the phrase: “Big Brother is watching.” Yes, through iPhone videos, traffic lights, stores, business, and homes. Rarely are we alone.

Jeff Rowlings’ masterful set design transforms the stage into a dingy basement torture chamber, complete with gray pipes, peeling paint, and an aged corrugated door. Thick electric cables hang menacingly over a wooden interrogation platform.

Immersed, at times involuntarily, into the dark dystopian world of Oceania, we encounter the authoritative voice of Warren David Keith, portraying the Hitlerian-like “Party” leader, “Big Brother.” Keith’s portrayal skillfully presents as a soft threatening, yet sadistic warlord eager to turn Winston into a loving Big Brother robot, or offer his face as fodder for rats.

Sullivan’s clever beginning introduces us to the unlikely hero, Winston Smith, dressed in filthy prison attire, tethered to electric cables, ordered to tell his story for the Party’s records. As Winston’s tale unfolds, we witness both his present and past. We share in his thoughts, actions, and pain while observing the totalitarian brutality of narcissistic rulers.

The four zealous “Party” members, Brady Moralis-Woolery, Daniel Duque-Estrada, Megan Soledad, and David Bryant, effortlessly transition between roles, embodying neighbors, store owners, and Winston’s double. Their impeccable acting, pacing, and synchronization breathe exciting life into Winston’s diary.

Daniel Duque-Estrada, Megan Soledad, Brady Morales-Woolery, David Bryant

Joseph Patrick O’Malley delivers an exceptional performance as Winston. We feel his sense of futility, and gradual discontent. O’Malley captures Winston’s dreams of freedom, his worse fears, and intense desire for change—echoing the struggles of “Dreamers” today.

The audience cringes as Winston endures electric shocks for hesitating to confess, heightened by Matt Stines’ nerve-shattering sound effects. Kurt Landisman’s moody lighting enhances the chilling atmosphere, amplifying the terror experienced by citizens.

The Motto of the “Party”: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” represent the mantra to stifle individualism and free thought. It manipulate its citizens through lies, starvation, and torture. 

Winston had worked in the Ministry of Truth converting past newspaper truths and historical facts into “Fake Lies” for the war-machine propaganda, that rings out today in various forms.

This “1984” Ministry’s mission is to lessen pages in the dictionary to eliminate descriptive and action words. This would curtail independent thinking and acceptance of diversity, similar to book banning today.

Becoming disillusioned with Party ideology, Winston begins to rebel in his own small ways. He buys an old diary, writes daily, and fosters a forbidden love affair with flirtatious and sensual Julia, bold Megan Soledad. Both promise to love each other always. But can they?

Director Barbara Damashek expertly brings together a diverse talented cast, and navigates them through a complex tapestry of emotions. She tightly binds all the elements of this very complicated, sometimes grueling, well-written play.

This interpretation of the original “1984” makes us wonder, are we, too, unwittingly part of the “Party?”

In a world where trust is eroding, and anger intensified, Sullivan’s rendition of “1984” prompts essential discussions. A compelling and thought-provoking production. Undeniably a must-see.

“1984” written by George Orwell, adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, directed by Barbara Damashek, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley info: to Dec 10, 2023

cast: David Bryant, Daniel Duque-Estrada, Warren David Keith, Joseph Patrick O’Malley, Megan Soledad, Brady Morales-Woolery