In Play Reviews

Winston Smith (Chris Harder) sits alone in a room rewriting Party history, deleting characters from tomes at the Ministry of Truth as they are disgraced or executed. The year is 1984. Everywhere televisions monitor peoples’ every activity. Oceania is at war, and potential traitors to the Party, to Big Brother, must be dealt with!

Chris Harder in 1984. Photo by Kathleen Kelly.

George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949. It also is the 2013 play 1984, written by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, and Artists Repertory Theatre‘s first play of its 2019-2020 season.

What a season opener it is!

At his miserable little table, Winston begins a secret journal. It must be secret because having thoughts of one’s own is a subversive activity punishable by death. Winston hates Big Brother and everything it stands for. Winston dreams of freedom.

In an equally miserable employees’ cafeteria, Parsons (Jeb Barrier) and Syme (John San Nicholas) yammer over lunch. It’s not so bad, is it? Really? Syme, who is revising the dictionary, opines that the true purpose of Newspeak is to reduce the capacity of human thought. Winston speculates that Syme will disappear as he believes he is “too intelligent”. Julia (Claire Rigsby) passes a note to Winston confessing her love. And in the Parson home, Mrs. Parsons (Sara Hennessy) deals with her Party-loving daughters (Layla Foster and Prudence Dawes).

Chris Harder and Claire Rigsby in 1984. Photo by Kathleen Kelly.

Soon Julia and Winston begin their affair. Winston rents a room from his neighbor Charrington (Michael Mendelson) so the couple can be away from the ubiquitous cameras. It isn’t long until he and Julia are summoned to the luxurious apartment of O’Brien (Allen Nause), and the play takes a sinister turn.

Directed by Artists Rep’s artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, this play shows humans at their most vulnerable, at the mercy of a system they can barely understand. Small wonder. How can they, fumes O’Brien, “People will not look up from their screens.” Nause portrays O’Brien with such reasonable malevolence the audience almost wants to like him–but not his assistant, Martin (Ken Yoshikawa). Chris Harder gives an incredible performance as Winston.

Chris Harder and Allen Nause. Photo by Kathleen Kelly.

With a strong cast and great directing, 1984 provides as intense and terrifying a 105 minutes as you will ever want to see. It will be a bit much for some playgoers, but the message is clear. It’s past time to look up from our screens.

The creative team includes Logan Starnes, assistant director; Jonathan Cole, fight choreographer; Amanda Cole, intimacy choreographer; Megan Wilkerson, scenic designer; Kristeen Willis, lighting designer; Sarah Gahagan, costume designer; Rodolfo Ortega, sound designer; Alan Cline, projection designer; Diane Trapp, wig designer; Shawn Lee, video director.

Performances of 1984 continue through October 6. Since the building owned by Artists Rep is undergoing renovation, the play is onstage at the Imago Theatre venue at 17 SE 8th, Portland, 97214. Parking can be an issue, so plan to arrive early. Other venues will be announced throughout this season and the next.

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