For Whom Orwell Tolls

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway met in the Spanish Civil War. The two authors--arguably the most influential British author and American author of the last century--are both on display this spring on stage here in Los Angeles. No, not in a historical play that re-imagines their meeting--though I suppose it's only a matter of time before someone writes it--but in two works that dramatize the two author's greatest fictions: Orwell's 1984 and Hemingway's autobiography.

First, 1984. Orwell's 1948 novel has been ubiquitous since its publication--but the book, its setting, and the adjective &quotOrwellian;" has been mentioned with such frequency in our current &quotWar; on Terror" that its relevancy is being challenged. No doubt playwright Michael Gene Sullivan had that in mind when he set out to adapt 1984 for the stage.

Improving on Orwell's writing is a tough task--his insights tend to be honest and precise, and his prose possesses a clarity that is astonishing. There have been film adaptations over the years--none of which have approached the quality of the book. Last year American conductor and composer Lorin Maazel mounted an operatic version of 1984. It was a grand effort, but even with a lavish production and the forces of the Royal Opera Orchestra (not to mention the voice of Jeremy Irons as Big Brother) Maazel's adaptation felt like little more than Cliff's Notes set to music.

So credit Mr. Sullivan for devising a way to adapt 1984 that doesn't just seem like a cut-and-paste job. Sullivan sets his stage version entirely in the Thought Police's interrogation room. We start en media res and learn the story of Winston Smith in flashbacks acted out by the Inner Circle interrogators. It's a theatrical way of telling the story, that in theory should work. It doesn't however in this humorless production directed by Tim Robbins.

The director seems to have forgotten that Orwell's story takes place in an alternate world--not our own. This isn't to say there aren't parallels, but Robbins is hellbent on making it seem as if Orwell accurately predicted the Bush administration. Orwell didn't. So if Robbins' point is that the USA is a modern day Oceania, why bother with Winston Smith? Why not just show &quotMission; Accomplished" news footage or a Donald Rumsfeld press conference? It makes the point better than having actors in corporate suits reading Orwell's doublespeak with a wink.

Sullivan's adaptation already lends itself to be a parable for America today and the playwright also peppers the script with contemporary lingo, such as when the Thought Police refer to Oceania as &quotthe; homeland."

Sullivan and Robbins are sincere in their desire to show why Orwell remains relevant, but this production only highlights the fact that Orwell is most powerful, not when realized on stage or screen, but rather when his words are realized in the safety of one's own imagination.

If 1984's main fault is that its too earnest, the same criticism can be leveled at a show about Hemingway currently running at the Actor's Gang's old space on Santa Monica Boulevard, titled Papa. Papa is a yet another one-person biography, along the lines of Mark Twain Tonight. It stars Adrian Sparks as Hemingway, circa 1959--just after he's won the Nobel Prize.

Sparks is a good look-alike for the famous author, but his performance feels also like a look-alike. It's a great impersonation, but Sparks is unable to make you forget that he's acting. The actor isn't helped by John DeGroot's text, which is content to simply mine biographical works like A Movable Feast for anecdotes and then string them together to form a sort of drunken lecture.

The conceit of the play is that the audience is a surrogate for a Life Magazine photographer--a gimmick that is made obvious by light pops that randomly flash the stage. But just as the real Papa would never open himself up to a journalist--he was too good of one himself, DeGroot and Sparks version of Papa is unable to make Hemingway, the man, come alive on stage.

Papa runs at the Open Fist Theatre Company's new space in Hollywood through April 13; 1984 runs at The Actors' Gang's new venue, the Ivy Substation in Culver City, until May 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.