Looking to get a real scare this Halloween season? Skip the haunted house. Hands down, the most truly chill-inducing thing in town right now has got to be Bricolage’s Midnight Radio version of George Orwell’s 1984.
Midnight Radio, for the uninitiated, presents a theatricalized live radio broadcast circa 1940. Actors stand at microphones, reading from scripts in hand, and they not only vocally enact the story for an imagined radio audience, but also (with the help of a trio of musicians) create all of the music and foley sound effects for the “broadcast.” The stage is chock full of props and clever doodads for creating the needed sounds: for example, a set of glasses to clink together to create the sound of a busy restaurant, or small cardboard boxes to muffle voices and make them sound distant. This all creates a delightful interplay between the audio illusions that we see created before our eyes and the effect we imagine those illusions would have on (imaginary) listeners tuned in to the broadcast at home or in their cars.
Midnight Radio is now in its seventh season, and one might worry that the format could have started to lose some of its charm and appeal. But happily that is not the case. The material Bricolage chooses to “broadcast” continues to be fresh and inventive, and with 1984 the company has pushed the boundaries of the form even further by greatly downplaying the parodic element that dominated most of the earlier Midnight Radio plays.
Alan Lyddiard’s 2009 theatrical adaptation is a highly streamlined (and not wholly faithful) retelling of Orwell’s dystopian tale about a totalitarian regime that derives its power from a combination of constant surveillance over the populace and total control over the circulation of information. Winston Smith (Brett Goodnack) works at a bureaucratic job under the watchful eye of Big Brother; his work involves mastering doublespeak in order to create propaganda for the Ministry. But he has not fully drunk the koolaid – he has suspicions that the “truths” broadcast regularly through Ministry telescreens are nothing but doublespeak fabrications. He meets Julia (Sara Williams), who seems a loyal subject of the regime, but who is likewise harboring rebellious thoughts and feelings. They fall in love (a crime in itself), and seek out O’Brien (Paul Guggenheimer), a man Winston believes is part of a resistance movement against the Ministry. But Winston and Julia are caught – betrayed by the very men they thought they could trust – and themselves forced, through physical and psychological torture, to betray not only each other, but also their own most deeply held beliefs and feelings.
Could such a society really exist? I suppose one need only look at North Korea to find affirmative evidence. But the scarier prospect is that such control over information, and such constant surveillance, may already have crept up around those of us who don’t live under totalitarian regimes. We’ve already seen egregious incidences of doublespeak (“USA Patriot Act,” anyone?) and massive government surveillance (NSA phone record collecting, anyone?). The nightmare possibility 1984 raises – thirty-one years after the date in which the novel was set – is that we could slippery-slope-slide into the state it predicted (of being rather unsubtly manipulated through misinformation and constantly under observation) through our eager embrace of those very technologies that promise to offer access to a wide diversity of information and connect us socially in non-coercive ways. The play’s implied suggestion that, in the wrong hands, our two-way screens might be used to police thought and behavior in brutally effective ways should induce a shudder of horror in thoughtful viewers.
Director Jeffrey Carpenter has assembled a terrific cast to bring this world to life. Goodnack is phenomenal as Winston – in particular, given the radio play constraints, the emotional intensity he brings to the some of the more wrenching scenes is breathtaking. Sean Sears and John Michnya also use their prodigious vocal talents to breath life into a slew of supporting roles, and the cast is backed by excellent musical accompaniment from Jason Coll (keyboards), Kira Bokalders (clarinet), and Will Teegarden (cello).