Big Brother is watching in Pendragon’s “1984”

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George Orwell's 1984, Performed by Pendragon Theatre, September 10, 2017. 

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SARANAC LAKE — Straight from the pages of a high school reading assignment to the stage at Pendragon Theatre, “1984” is a thought-provoking theatrical adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel.

The play uses the interrogation of its rebellious protagonist, Winston Smith, to reveal the events leading up to him being questioned by Big Brother and denying that ignorance is strength, war is peace and freedom is slavery.

The godfather of the paranoid, grim, big government stories, which are practically a genre unto themselves, Orwell’s tale was published in 1949 but still has powerful messages relevant in modern government and society.

“‘1984’ has been brought up a lot,” said Karen Lordi-Kirkham, the theater’s artistic director. “This whole idea of double-speak, the idea of what is truth, fake news. It’s kind of in the air right now.”

Smith is a fake news writer, re-writing old articles to match Big Brother’s new “truths” when he gets caught up in secret societies and government conspiracies, bringing him to his interrogation at The Ministry of Love.

A disembodied voice leads the questioning with four party members following and acting out his memories of the past. With few props and a lot of dialogue, the play quickly delves into Smith’s relationship with a woman named Julia, the highly-controlled world of Oceania and even the interrogators doubts.

“It starts out super orderly and clean and they are always sitting together; it’s mechanical,”Director Mason Wagner said. “And by the end, it’s all sloppy. They are everywhere and they are at each other. The cleanliness is gone from them and they are infected with Winston’s humanity.”

The interrogation is a battle between humanity’s need for freedom and government’s need for submissive order and fanatical patriotism, which Julia describes as “sex gone sour.”

The frustratingly legalistic party members have Smith outnumbered in this battle, but they soon are questioning their loyalties and actions.

“I want everyone in the audience to know that in a world where this kind of government exists, it’s not just evil people who do bad things, it’s everybody,” Wagner said. “And how complicit can we be in that, and when do we put our foot down and say, ‘I can’t do that to my fellow man.'”

Pendragon will bring “1984” to schools in the area, providing a visual dimension to the staple of high school literature classes. Wagner wants students to draw parallels between the fictional universe and their own lives, looking at the role of government, the importance of thought and their own humanity in a new light.

While currently another adaptation of “1984” is causing Broadway theatergoers to vomit and faint, Pendragon’s torture scenes are tamer. This certainly does not mean it is an easy play to watch. Christopher Leifheit as Smith screams, panics and turns red as he is interrogated for his “Thoughtcrimes,” a sight that elicited audible, disturbed responses from residents of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center, who sat in on Thursday night’s rehearsal.

Though the bleak world of Oceania is not kind to Smith, there are pockets of comedy and romance throughout the performance that lighten the grim mood and provide a break from the play’s heady themes.

A gripping evening of relishing in the human spirit, “1984” interrogates the audience to confess their own “Thoughtcrimes” and celebrate their criminal mental activity.

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