Opening Nights: Orwell's 1984

Also: The Mineola Twins and Tibet Through the Red Box.

1984

The Empty Space; ends Sat., Feb. 28 W.C. Fields advised against working with children or animals. Had the old curmudgeon lived long enough to dally in multimedia theater, he might've had something to say about playing second fiddle to televisions, too. The boob tube plays a large and necessary role in this new stage version of George Orwell's prescient classic, but it also upstages the people to whom we need to make a connection. The show seems to take less pleasure in the portrayal of personal emancipation than in depicting the man-made machinery that tramples it. As craftily adapted by playwright Wayne Rawley, Orwell's not-so-distant future has been transformed into a kind of vigilant, humorless Good Morning America. Winston Smith (Adrian LaTourelle) lives a mostly solitary life in Oceania, his drudgery prodded by omniscient, televised comrades who guide him through morning calisthenics, serve as his lunchmates, and inform him of a faceless, supposedly wildly successful war overseas. Rawley, whose articulate spoofery of kitsch TV propels the local late-night cult hit Money & Run, has a keen, excited ear for the absurd, and he hears in Orwell an opportunity for black humor that leavens the oppressiveness of the proceedings without sacrificing any of the political commentary (Winston is besieged by a constant, piped-in propaganda soundtrack and a steely ersatz DJ who raves, "That was another hit from Machine No. 13!"). Director Allison Narver, who conceived this production, makes good initial use of the conceit; we spend the first third of the show feeling the weight of Winston's world. The live and recorded videography by Web Crowell and Bob Bejan illuminates not only the daily physical parameters that Winston must observe—he keeps a diary of his unlawful thoughts hidden just outside the camera's range—but his fantasies and several key plot points. When Julia (Tess Auberjonois), a seemingly implacable co-worker, stumbles in front of him, Winston holds out a helping hand; on a screen behind them, the moment is slowed down and replayed, acknowledging both its human impact and the note that Julia has slyly slipped into Winston's palm. That's a nice effect that Narver isn't quite able to achieve elsewhere—the show is often stiff and self-important when it doesn't have technology to kick around. LaTourelle has a halting, contained emotiveness that lends credibility to the proceedings, but Narver isn't paying attention to details in his forbidden, fleeting encounters with Auberjonois' Julia. Their passion feels perfunctory when every touch should be potentially earth-shattering—they're all talk. Things don't have any resonance until Act II, when David Pichette's chilling O'Brien takes the stage to forever erase the lovers' brief happiness. The scenes between fascist O'Brien and rebel Winston have real tension and drama; Pichette's torture of LaTourelle has all the heat and sweat that the lovemaking with Auberjonois lacked. Debating O'Brien's debilitating politics, Winston argues that a society based only on hate would have no vitality. Ironically, it's only the hate-based world in this 1984 that shows any real signs of life. STEVE WIECKING THE MINEOLA TWINS

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., Feb. 21 Myrna and Myra, the titular twins of small-town Mineola, aren't separated at birth, but temperamentally they might as well be, as they each inhabit the opposite ends of the political spectrum in mid-to-late-20th-century America. Myrna is of clean-cut, chaste Republican stock (the "good" girl, natch), while Myra is alternately the town "fast" girl, radical hippie, and lesbian mom. It's an obvious setup for a critique of the social movements in our recent past, each side battling for the country's soul. Instead, it plays rather like Forrest Gump—a potted cultural history throwing up the appropriate signature moments of each era. Thus the '50s scenes drop in references to Ike and Kerouac; in the '60s, it's Nixon and pot; in the '80s, it's "feminazis" and Planned Parenthood. Music provides cues to which time period comes next (though "Leader of the Pack" is actually from the '60s, not the '50s). However, playwright Paula Vogel (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive) has no insights to offer about the eras the sisters live through or, indeed, what lies beyond the surface clichés they spout. There are a few moments indicating a greater depth: Myra's impassioned comments about her desire to break the rules; references to Myrna's mysterious breakdown; and the twins' sporadic telepathic relationship (at its strongest during their dreams or in times of stress). But with no center core driving the story—other than the simple passage of time—the overall effect is like watching a series of vaguely connected sketches. As Myrna/Myra, Victoria Dicce has an East Coast accent that's a tad too shrill (especially as Myrna), while the chief means of differentiating between the sisters is the size of their bustlines. Rachel Hynes is sweet as Jim (Myrna's boyfriend) and Sarah (Myra's girlfriend), while Zach Lundin also does double duty as Kenny/Ben—Myrna's freethinking and Myra's straight-laced sons, respectively. But the players don't have a lot to work with. There is much that could be said about how the changing times affect the choices people make in their lives, and how even extreme ideological differences don't necessarily destroy familial bonds. GILLIAN G. GAAR  

Dreaming in Tibet.

photo: CHRIS BENNION TIBET THROUGH THE RED BOX

Seattle Children's Theatre; ends Sun., March 14 David Henry Hwang's adaptation of Peter Sís' nonfiction adventure begins in medias res, with Father (Peter Crook) taking a mighty tumble during an avalanche in Tibet, while his son, Peter (Tommy Fleming), falls from a roof. Tibet takes place during the 1950s, and though younger children may have a hard time grasping the geopolitical turmoil of the decade, the rapidly shifting set conveys the complex instability of the era as much as the dialogue. Thanks to Carey Wong's design, the space that serves as Peter's spartan bedroom morphs quickly into snowy dreamscapes, a raging river, or a palace the color of fire. Such visual grandeur reflects not only Wong's ingenuity but also director Francesca Zambello's background in opera—she transforms Sís' simple story into an epic, bifurcated journey with mythic overtones. Call it Homebody/Lhasa. The parallel plot takes Father into the heart of Tibetan village life as he goes AWOL from his assignment as a propaganda filmmaker for the Russians, who have occupied Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, a bedridden Peter uses his father's letters to imagine a Tibet populated by yetis, man-sized fish, and friendly monks. To the obvious delight of younger audience members, some of Hwang's comedy verges on shtick (the Russian officer who speaks English but ends every word with "-ski," for example, or the yeti in search of "Chickenslovakia"). Bad puns notwithstanding, Tibet provides an engrossing look at how exposure to another way of life can change us permanently. With its dual stories of occupation and struggle mirroring the two-track account of father and son, the show doesn't pander as much as it challenges. For every easy gag or zany, Disney-style sidekick, there's a moment of insight about Buddhism or an environmental parable. What makes a small Himalayan nation such an excellent subject for children's theater is that most parents know as little about it as their kids. The show lets adults and children travel together, just as Father and Peter do, through a faraway land of strange beauty. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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