Dystopian Delight

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Remember 1984?

The book. Not the year.

Remember Big Brother? Thought Crimes?

Britain's Headlong Theater Company has brought their stunning adaptation of 1984 to the Broad Stage for the next month and the show is challenging in surprising ways.

Orwell's dystopian novel is something of a political warning sign -- a polemic against the very worst in us.

But a book is different from a play. A novel is a deeply intimate experience where the action unfolds personally in your mind. The stage, as it were, is in your head. In the theater that experience is communal and -- while hopefully there's a lot going on in your head -- the characters are made flesh and blood by actors.

Headlong's 1984 manages to preserve and amplify the experience of the novel while translating the action to the stage.

The world of the play is a stunning combination of projections and a masterful set that evokes an odd combination of a warm, wood paneled library and the hazy windows of a forgotten East German party office. The projections, looming above, capture not only an ever-present sense of surveillance but also a sense of all that's possible since 1984. That description of the ever-present telescreen that can be dimmed but not turned off and tracks your every move -- sounds disturbingly like my iPhone.

The novel is compressed to its lean storyline, not dissimilar from that Cliff's Notes outline that I know you didn't read. Instead of capturing every plot point they've opted for precision and repetition. The monotony of our protagonist - Winston's life and totalitarian drudge is captured as we relive the same scene with tiny variations. It's physically stunning.

Once Winston's world breaks apart so does the set in a physical dismantling that's perhaps more impressive technically than conceptually.

But the ideas are really at the heart of Orwell and the solitary experience of chewing them over is surprisingly intact. With all of the NSA revelations several years ago there were a flood of articles and opinions calling up 1984. Big Brother is, after all, still our powerful catch-all. What's shocking is those parallels become more complicated in this production than you might expect. I, at least, found myself following one line of expected parallels only to have Orwell surprise me with how his warnings resonate in everything from Donald Trump, to our ever-present tech overlords, to the public brutality of ISIS.

There is still a lot of meat on these bones -- a lot to think about. That's maybe the greatest gift, and oddly, the biggest hurdle with this production. Like Orwell's book it's primarily for the mind rather than the heart. While you'll be stunned by the power of 1984 as a play, I don't know if you'll be moved.

But the ideas and the stagecraft are enough. Don't miss this one.

1984 plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through February 6.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 Minutes without an intermission

Photo: Manuel Harlan