A modern take on today's Orwellian world - Albuquerque Journal

A modern take on today’s Orwellian world

SANTA FE – In a case of art imitating life, or maybe clairvoyance on the part the folks at the Santa Fe Playhouse, the company decided to perform a play based on George Orwell’s “1984” long before the classic novel returned to the best-seller lists in recent weeks, as the world adjusts to the presidency of Donald Trump.

The political climate’s convergence with the Santa Fe production is “lucky for us, but unlucky for the world,” said Playhouse artistic director Vaughn Irving.

Orwell’s 1949 book details a Fascist regime in a post-war country called Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain). In this world, “newspeak” bans independent thought and “doublethink” is intended as “reality control.”

For many, Orwell’s creation came to mind when Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway put forth the idea of “alternative facts” when challenged about claims that Trump’s inauguration had the biggest crowds ever, despite photographs clearly showing otherwise.

Asked if Playhouse’s timing was prescient, Irving said, “It feels that way a little bit … when she said ‘alternative facts,’ then ‘1984’ entered the public zeitgeist.”

“On one hand, it’s frightening because we are living in a world that can exist where someone can say I have my own truth and it doesn’t matter what the true truth is,” he said. “From a theatrical producer standpoint, I’m very glad we are doing the show at the time where the conversation is necessary.”

Add to all that the most famous bit of “1984” – posters all over that say “Big Brother Is Watching You.”

Robyn Rikoon, director of the Playhouse’s “1984,” was interviewed for this story on same day that news articles based on the latest WikiLeaks document dump reported that the CIA has the ability to turn cellphones, computers and TVs connected to the internet into listening and spying devices.

In Orwell’s dystopian novel, every building contains omniscient cameras, microphones and tele-screens.

“I suppose it only deepens the themes and the meanings of it,” said Rikoon. “The world we live in is Orwellian and part of my job is to bring it to a modern audience.”

The protagonist in "1984" is Winston Smith, played by Vaughn Irving at The Santa Fe Playhouse. (Photo by Lynn Roylance)
The protagonist in “1984” is Winston Smith, played by Vaughn Irving at The Santa Fe Playhouse. (Photo by Lynn Roylance)

The production got its genesis when theater manager Jennie Lewis said, “‘What if we did a whole political season,’ and ‘1984’ popped up because of Edward Snowden, the NSA, Google and Facebook,” said Irving, who also plays the drama’s protagonist Winston Smith. “We were aware we are living in a very political time.”

Tallis Rose portrays Julia, Winston’s love interest and co-worker at the Ministry of Truth.

For director Rikoon, the production is about “working on finding similarities and differences” between themes such as control, individuality and “who the enemy is and the sources of information.”

President Trump “wants you to get the news from one place but, because of technology today, that’s impossible,” he said.

Irving also sees parallels between the current administration’s nationalistic leanings and “1984,” but he acknowledges that “the world of ‘1984’ is a lot scarier than the world we are in right now.” But what does the future hold? “That’s what’s worrisome,” said Irving.

The production is Rikoon’s first, full-length, main stage directorial effort. Irving choose the stage adaptation of the book by playwright Robert Owens and others, and provided Rikoon with the script.

There are a lot of characters in Orwell’s novel, but the adaptation Santa Fe Playhouse is using “compressed a lot of the characters into one or two people,” said Rikoon.

“My cast are people from ages 14 to 65, and they just really show up and are passionate about this.”

The new attention shown for “1984” these days will continue on Broadway. A British production of “1984” that premiered in 2014 will come to New York’s the Hudson Theater in June.

Rikoon grew up in Santa Fe, graduated with a BFA from the North Carolina School of the Arts, and honed her acting and directing chops in theater productions in Minneapolis and New York City.

Actor, director and writer Irving is a Santa Fe High School graduate who then received a BFA in music and theater from Illinois Wesleyan University. He has acted in and directed over 50 productions in several states.

The Playhouse uses an Orwell quote about “1984” to promote the show. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive,” the novelist said. “The moral to be drawn from the dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends upon you.”

Irving concurs. “I think that’s really where we need to take this production,” he said. “Because individuality is what gets stripped away in ‘1984,’ the ability to think for yourself.”

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