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  1. Stage

Jobsite Theater wants to challenge audiences with an adaptation of '1984'

Giles Davies plays Winston Smith and Jennifer Casler plays Party Member 2 in 1984, Michael Gene Sullivan's adaptation of the George Orwell novel. The Jobsite Theater production runs at the Straz Center from April 27 through May 20, 2018. Photo by Pritchard Photography.
Published Apr. 25, 2018

TAMPA

Now is as good a time as any, since there is no great time to take a deep dark look into the apocalypse of humanity.

But history rewards those brave enough to try, from Nostradamus to George Orwell, who are looking more and more like the same breed of seer. The British novelist set his 1984 in Oceania, one of three superstates that control the globe.

The book has spawned numerous adaptations for stage or screen, including a version by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan that closed in October after 125 performances. The show inspired the praise of critics and PTSD in audiences, some of whom reportedly fainted or vomited during the repeated torture scenes. (The show was not nominated for a 2017-18 Tony Award because a producer, for reasons that remain unclear, did not invite a member of the awards committee to see it.)

This weekend, Jobsite Theater opens a 2006 adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan. The show directed by Shawn Paonessa runs in the round in the 130-seat Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Curtains have been sidelined and seats added at the top of the stage, along with a raised platform extending the front.

"The audience sits in solemn witness to all of this, and are really implicated as a sort of inquisitor as well," said producing artistic director David Jenkins, who plays O'Brien in the show.

The same dynamic caused a stir with the Icke and Macmillan version in London and New York, as Winston Smith shouted accusations at customers for doing nothing to help him.

"We the people are the instruments of torture," Jenkins said. "It's not the machines."

Sullivan, for 17 years the resident playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, put it another way in a preface to the script: "The emphasis of this adaptation is not technology, but of how humans become machines."

That spirit suffuses the novel, which catalogs the subtle means of enforcing conformity, signaled in Orwell's cold prose.

"He was always obsessed with and highly deliberate about style," Tampa Bay Times book critic Colette Bancroft said. "1984 isn't lyrical, but that's because he shaped its style to reflect the brutal but effective language of the fascists he was writing about. As a stylist, he was a big influence on modernist writers."

Actor Tim Robbins directed the 2006 premiere at the Actors Gang (where he serves as artistic director) in Culver City, Calif. A cast of five men and one woman carry out that low-tech production at Jobsite, without the ever-present "telescreens" in the novel, used by Big Brother to broadcast propaganda and spy on 98 percent of its citizens. Characters including Emmanuel Goldstein, who wrote Oceania's manifesto, the patriotic neighbor to protagonist Smith and the suspicious shopkeeper who reports him to the Thought Police are not in this adaptation. They show up indirectly, through the dialogue between Smith and unnamed "Party Members" 1 through 4, as well as O'Brien, who Smith meets as a fellow member of the secret, insurrectionist Brotherhood.

Jenkins writes off the alleged trauma suffered by audiences to the Broadway show as thought contagion, akin to a carnival barker's "warning" to crowds who are considering the human pincushion or sword swallower.

"I personally think that's classic marketing," he said. "?'This is too frightening for the audience! You shouldn't see this!' They made a big deal out of Jennifer Lawrence vomiting in the lobby. She came out later and said, 'No, I had bad sushi.'?"

Some of that discomfort does come from the show, as it should.

"We want for people to ask the important questions, which are not about the prettiest aspects of human nature," Jenkins said. "As theater artists that is what we do, hold a mirror up to human nature when people would rather not look at those things. It's not the kind of theater I want to do 24/7. But there is a void of that kind of storytelling in this town."

As it happens, two other theaters are currently dabbling in themes of totalitarianism. The Producers, the Mel Brooks comedy featuring Hitler and dancing Nazis, is currently running as the American Stage in the Park production. The Machine Stops, an adaptation by Eric Davis of the E.M. Forster novella, about machines subjugating humans, opens May 5 at Freefall Theatre.

To get some idea of how 1984 might loosely resemble 2018, let's take a look around Oceania. This is a surveillance state taken to an extreme, in which even the wrong facial expressions can get you arrested.

Prescient elements include superstates fighting seemingly perpetual and unwinnable wars; fake news, sometimes involving "false flag" attacks; and the various ways in which the language of freedom can be used to foment coercion. For a contemporary corollary, look no further than memes of repression and free speech animating clashes online or even in physical violence between protesters.

"Both sides are claiming the other is turning into Big Brother," Jenkins said.

He plays the double agent O'Brien, who only offered support to Smith as a way to gain his trust (a technique visible on reality shows since The Real World and Survivor).

Giles Davies, who entertained audiences in Jobsite's Cloud Nine and The Tempest, stars as Smith.

"He's a very gifted performer," Jenkins said. "He elevates everybody's work around him."

Smith, as you probably know, eventually loses his struggle to Big Brother. And that's only phase one. Phase two is a bullet in the head.

As O'Brien explains in the play, "We make the brain perfect before we blow it out. And at that last moment there's nothing left but sorrow for what they have done, love of Big Brother, and the desire to be shot quickly, so they can die while their minds are still pure."

The forcefulness in the script, traumatic though it may be, issues directly from the novel.

"I don't think you can, or should, try to be nonpolitical about 1984," Bancroft said. "It's one of the most overtly political novels I can think of. Its subject is political power and how language and media can be degraded and manipulated to enlarge and enforce that power, which is what makes it so dismayingly relevant now."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.
Follow @torch437.

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