Benchmark Theatre’s production a high-water mark for Colorado small theater
War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
So goes the authoritarian mantra of George Orwell’s disturbing look ahead in his groundbreaking novel ‘1984.’ Having set the bar for dystopian literature back in 1949 in the wake of Hitler and the dawn of Stalin, Orwell himself didn’t live long enough to see some of his worst dreams come true (he died in 1950 at age 46). His work, though, has long stood as the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of letting a runaway state invade every aspect of our lives.
What would Orwell say about the omnipresent cameras and other pervasive surveillance devices in our society today? The voluntary sharing of private information on Facebook and other social media? The NSA and Department of Homeland Security?
He’d certainly have plenty of I-told-you-so moments in the age of Trump, fake news and rampant gaslighting.
It’s easy to imagine him being horrified at the same time. ‘1984’ is still a work of fiction, but perhaps even Orwell couldn’t have believed so much of what he imagined would become so real.
It makes for great literature, but the vivid world envisioned by Orwell has also lent itself to a variety of iterations on screen and stage. One of the newest is a 2013 play by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, now playing at the Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood. It’s the kind of theater experience that leaves you a bit stunned at the end. This production is so raw, so well-acted and done in such an intimate space that it’s impossible not to feel every inch of the characters’ pain.
Setting the stage
From the moment you enter the lobby at Benchmark, you know there’s something different going on. The open area has been cloaked in white cloth, and admission is done in groups as “Big Brother” allows. Once inside, eerie music plays in the background as a half-dozen TV screens alternately show test patterns and taped announcements complete with digital hiccups as if to underscore the limits of the state-run technology.
Director Neil Truglio, apparently working with a generous budget for such a small theater, has a fantastic set to work with. Rather than the typically spare design of previous Benchmark productions, “1984” has a full construction that also features a secondary, video-fed set behind the main build. There are fairly sophisticated AV effects that coordinate with the action, including a jarring set of scenes where different camera angles are displayed simultaneously.
It’s all in service to a sharp cast that features Sean Scrutchins as the protagonist Winston, Rebecca Buckley as his love interest, Julia and Dan O’Neill as the double-crossing tool of the state, O’Brien. Things gather momentum quickly, and it’s fascinating to be suddenly steeped in the Orwellian world where familiar terms like “doublespeak,” “Thought Police” and “Newspeak” are part of the landscape. As Winston and the other characters puzzle and argue over the nature of reality and truth, it’s impossible not to reflect on the world of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth” introduced to us by the Trump Administration.
Since I’d last read “1984” in 1984, I’d forgotten how much of the story revolves around the relationship between Winston and Julia. Buckley does nice work splitting Julia’s membership in the fanatical “Junior Anti-Sex League” and a wannabe rebel who’s also fallen in love with Winston (and decides sex is OK). Their relationship, of course, provides key leverage for O’Brien who looks to exploit it to his advantage.
Their trysts occur in a room behind an antique shop run by Charrington, played by the wonderful Chris Kendall. A member of the Thought Police, Charrington lures them in with avuncular charm and memories of how things were in the past.
When they are exposed, the set is broken down and instantly replaced with a white-lined, white-draped bare room where Winston is tortured by O’Brien. It’s bloody, horrific and extended. In the small space of the Benchmark, with no audience member more than a few feet away, the actors don’t have much room for error. Scrutchins does difficult and convincing work as the subject of physical and mental torture, while O’Neill revels in O’Brien’s understated sadism. He’s aided by toadying manservant Martin (Ryan Omar Stack) and a half-dozen gasmask- and clean-suit-wearing henchmen (and women, I presume).
It’s a long scene, hard to watch and one that perhaps could have been trimmed a bit. Ultimately, though, this in-your-face pain is necessary to convince us why both of the lovers betray one another.
The cast is strong throughout, with Perry Lewis portraying Parsons as our MAGA-hat guy — a manic dolt with unshakable faithfulness in the Party. His wife is played by Suzanne Connors Nepi, whose repetitive scenes hanging laundry oddly mirror the action in Winston and Julia’s sex crib. Syme, who works with Winston at the Ministry of Truth, is portrayed by John Wittbrodt. This character’s work on the dictionary of “Newspeak” is a side-window into deciphering the state, and Wittbrodt plays him with the earnest angst of someone unpacking a particularly unpleasant puzzle.
Playing the representative Child is Lorelei Keppeler. As citizens who don’t know what life was like before Big Brother, the children are the most susceptible to the propaganda, and Keppeler embodies that population with creepy precision.
Benchmark’s “1984” is a harrowing, exceptionally well-done piece of theater not for the faint of heart. See it to remind yourself what the extreme end of authoritarian overreach looks like, but also to take in one of the best productions at any small theater in Colorado this season. It’s powerful stuff, presented with a realistic, austere aesthetic that perfectly matches the source material.