TAMPA — When a rock star touches outstretched hands in the front row, that's audience engagement. When a website lures readers with online quizzes, that's audience engagement.
Michael Gene Sullivan's adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 also engages audiences, in a way that feels neither euphoric nor innocuous. While this isn't supposed to be pleasant — we are watching an interrogation, a soul being dismantled — the result by Jobsite Theater provokes thought in significant ways.
Director Shawn Paonessa and set designer Brian Smallheer establish a world deprived of sensory stimuli, a bleak gray platform in the center of the Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. To preserve the intimacy, the theater removed the row of seats closest to the sound booth because it seemed too removed from the action. The barrenness keeps the focus on Winston Smith, who is lying on the floor as the lights come up, and his sense-deprived environment.
A faceless interrogator asks over the speaker system, "How did it begin?"
The audience sits on all four sides of the stage like spectators at a mixed martial arts match. Joining soon are "party members" 1 through 4, captives to an authoritarian state. Theirs is a tiny world, mired in the meanness and competitiveness of children.
It's pretty clear from the start we're not going to be getting out of this.
Giles Davies turns in a marvelous performance as Smith, whose crime is wanting to hang onto his humanity. The offstage interrogator zaps him countless times with sustained jolts of electricity, and we feel his every involuntary spasm. Party members in red blazers help act out the narrative as the play relaxes into storytelling mode, playing various people in Smith's life and sometimes Smith himself.
At times, players sit on either of two benches on an otherwise bare stage, as if watching a show. These moments of unity suggest the only hope available. If the world is tearing itself apart, constantly winnowing out impurities, at least the antagonists are briefly united in story.
For the audience, that means hearing about a lot of characters we never see. Players act out key scenes, including some tender moments between Smith and Julia, a forbidden affair that helped put him in captivity. Adam Workman as Party Member 1 and Jennifer Casler as Party Member 2 stand in for Smith and Julia in a touching scene of actual human connection, including sexuality.
Derrick Phillips as Party Member 4 doubles as multiple characters, including the amiable antiques shopkeeper who turns Smith in to the thought police. With just a little bit of buy-in, the audience can enjoy this tale, as one tableau shifts seamlessly into the next. It helps to invest in the story and not expect only to be entertained because being confronted with one thought-stripping technique after another is not fun. But as producing artistic director David Jenkins said in a recent interview, "There is a void of that kind of storytelling in this town."
Jenkins emerges later in the show as O'Brien, who had recruited Smith into the insurrectionist Brotherhood. If you read the book, you know he was a spy, in this case a smooth-talking mind control expert. A newsreel soundtrack periodically interrupts to announce the latest victory for their Oceania homeland against one of the other nation states.
Nicu Brouillette plays the most thuggish party member with more than enough enthusiasm. A quibble: Brouillette and sometimes other cast members engage in a good bit of shouting that doesn't always seem justified. True believers tend to state their truths factually; they don't need to shout. On the other hand, 1984 is about a mob state, and mobs are not known for restraint. Periodically the action slows to show party members cheering or exhorting in hate-filled ways, in slow motion. After the first couple of times, we get the idea.
Davies arrestingly depicts Smith's decline under duress, his resistance most admirable when emphasizing his rational faculties as a human being ("Freedom is the ability to say that two plus two equals four") and his refusal to turn on Julia. These are, of course, the qualities the state wants most desperately to undermine. At a key juncture in Room 101, a torture chamber, he stands on a platform with a cage over his head. It's a scene reminiscent of the prisoner in an iconic image of Abu Ghraib.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.