Volume 16 • Issue 37 | February 13 - 19, 2004

Film


1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’
Adaptations from George Orwell
Connelly Theater
220 E. 4th Street
Thru March 7 at the
(212) 868-4444


Viewing Orwell through a 2004 lens

By JERRY TALLMER

Photo by Richard Burdon

Cast of Orwell’s ‘1984:’ Clayton Dean Smith as Winston, right, Chris Campbell as Julia, left, and Joseph Culliton as O’Brien in background photograph.

Orwell! Thou shouldst be living in this hour / The world hath need of thee . . .

That’s true of any hour, any year, but in this year and hour there is as great a need as any. The Patriot Act. The Department of Homeland Security. If that isn’t Newspeak, what is?

Well, Orwell lives, of course. Always will. George Orwell, born Eric Blair in 1903. Published “Animal Farm” in 1944. Completed “1984” in 1949, a year before his death in 1950.

At the moment he’s living in and around the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street in what’s being called The Orwell Project, an outcrop of David Travis and Ginevra Bull’s Off-Off-Broadway Synapse Productions. On an alternating schedule, now through March 7, are their stagings of “Animal Farm” as a puppet musical, and of “1984” in flesh and film as per Alan Lyddiard’s cool, scary adaptation for his Northern Stage Ensemble of Newcastle, Great Britain.

Also on the docket are a Doublethink Summit, or “meet the politicians” lecture/debate (February 12); an Orwell Symposium (February 21); and an online Mock Primary Election aimed particularly toward students who will have seen the above shows.

David Travis, from Providence, R.I., and Boston, and Ginevra Bull, from Leicestershire, England — husband and wife, current East Village residents — founded Synapse at the 1991 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and in 2000 brought it, and their ideals, to New York City.

“Synapse,” says tall, lean, serious Travis, “for that magical electrical space, the gap between two nerve cells, where the impulse passes from one to the other. A good metaphor, we feel, for what passes — should pass — between audience and stage.

“Bernard Shaw said: ‘The role of the theater is to shape the conscience of our culture.’ That’s a little highfalutin, but the theater does need to debate the issues of our time — topics too critical for dinner conversation.”

Which are on all sides of us, underneath us, and on top of us, like Big Brother’s rats, these 20 years since 1984.

Speaking of rats, just how does O’Brien the torturer apply the rats to Winston Smith’s face in the production directed by Ginevra Bull at the Connelly?

“We discussed that,” says David Travis. “We talked of using real rats, but decided that would be too disrupting. Then we talked of video footage of lots of rats. But the current plan” — as of a few days before the play’s early-February opening — “is to put an empty steel cage on Winston Smith’s head in front of his face, and leave the rest to the imagination.”

One’s personal imagination would like to equate John Ashcroft with O’Brien & Co., but you would have to be a resident of those only slightly larger other cages, the ones down at Guantanamo, or be buried away without lawyer or telephone in some other forgotten dungeon cell in never-never-land USA, to make the verisimilitude come true.

There’s lots of video footage indicated in the Lyddiard adaptation for his Northern Stage Ensemble.

“They shot theirs in Moscow. We shot ours in the Connelly’s theaters,” Travis says dryly.

He himself has directed the “Animal Farm” puppet musical in which Squealer the pig “is a smiling spin doctor, like Rumsfeld,” and his boss, Napoleon, may or may not remind you of George Bush.

“I don’t know,” says Travis. “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Napoleon does have a Texas accent. Though he’s a lot smarter than Bush.”

These in “Animal Farm” are full-body puppets; in other words, you see the puppeteers. Ben Masur is Squealer, Darius Stone is Napoleon, and the 10 other handlers are Timothy McCracken, Scott Hitz, Connie Hall, Nelson Lugo, Jenny Mercein, Meg MacCary, Aaron Mostkoff Unger, Francis Kelly, Kelly McCallister, and Ceili Clemens.

The puppets were designed by Emily DeCola and Eric Wright. Music is by Richard Peaslee, lyrics by Adrian Mitchell.

The O’Brien of “1984” is Joseph Culliton, with Clayton Dean Smith as Winston Smith, Chris Campbell the Julia whom Winston (under rat torture) betrays, Evan Thompson as Charington, Kurt Elftmann as Syme.

Orwell, who saw fascism of left and right in the Spanish Civil War — in which he was shot through the throat — was first and foremost an enemy of Big Brother’s language-destroying (and people-destroying) big government.

“He is often co-opted by both left and right because of his strong libertarian views,” Travis notes. “The Montana Militia, for instance, are certainly not fans of big government. Well, just now, a lot of the language used by higher forms of government is tending toward the culture of fear.”

At the Connelly they’re fighting that with tongue pointedly in cheek. Over the box office is a sign: THE MINISTRY OF ATTENDANCE.


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