Freedom and expression in Krannert’s “1984”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

The first productions of the season are upon us in central Illinois, with shows going up at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Station Theatre, and the What You Will Shakespeare Company, among others. Due to travel this fall I was sad to have missed the Station’s take on Will Eno’s The Open House and WYW’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Eno is one of my favorite playwrights working today on the problem of disfunction in the myth we call the “All-American Family.” And Dekker’s Renaissance satire on the influence of audience tastes, alongside Eno, are interesting selections considering Illinois’ Theatre’s themed season around Censored/Free Expression. The adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 makes sense on the surface: the novel hits the problem on the head in a distopic portrayal of a Big Government whose agenda is to control even our very thoughts through the promulgation of continuous warfare. It inaugurates a season I am especially excited about, particularly in its spring offerings: The Other Shore (an ensemble consideration on the definition of “freedom” across cultures), Kingdom City (a mediation on the influence of the religious right on debates of contemporary freedom), The Grapes of Wrath (an adaptation of Steinbeck’s chilling migration epic), and In The Blood (a retelling of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter where “A” stands for abolitionist).

Julia (Alexis DawTyne) shouts in hate as Winston (Ryan Smetana) looks on. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

I would have liked to have seen 1984 at the end of the season, however, for several reasons: a) the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago is also mounting a production of the novel, saturating the landscape with the same source material, b) because the play hits the topic so hard on the head some of the complexity of Orwell’s arguments might have demonstrated more complexity—particularly in terms of religion—after say Kingdom City and In The Blood, and c) performing abstract, absurdist drama is a tough one right out of the gate for many of these otherwise skilled undergraduate students. In a world where on “a bright cold day in April” the clocks strike “thirteen,” there is no way to lend it a realism that we might desire from a Tracy Letts play or Edward Hopper painting. I can understand that there might be some logic to try to give a production some ethos by playing the world “straight,” but as in this production, the effect is more often flat than believable. For example, while time was easily described in different increments, the omnipresence of telescreens and loudspeaker announcements of productivity and troupe movements startled the ensemble. They were overtly afraid of being seen by the screens; they stopped what they were doing to take note of the announcements. If these aspects had been truly inculturated, wouldn’t the response have been to treat them as far less novel?

I have written about the tricky nature of abstraction and morality drama elsewhere: for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s recent production of Pericles, for last fall’s production of Oh! What a Lovely War! at Krannert, and the film Calvary, among others. These were largely successful because they do not attempt to recreate the real but rather naturalize the absurd—that that is without and undermines reason: that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. What is chilling about 1984 at the level of text is the way in which it manipulates syntax and diction into suggesting the a absolutist government operates with a measure of reason. For example,

  • “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”
  • “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
  • “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Each of these quotations are striking and terrifying on there own. Yet, in the lengthy adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan, they get swallowed up by repetitions of dialogue about needing to be precise and the incantatory “War is peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength.” Yes, we live in a society at seeming unending war with the Middle East and one that has never been more litigious with our day-to-day movements. For me, 1984 is most illuminating in terms of not what the government can and does do to censor us, but the ways in which we willingly censor ourselves.

Winston (Ryan Smetana) and Julia (Alexis DawTyne) are almost too convincing as Smith (Ford Bowers) narrates. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

Stress on realism rather than attempting to naturalize the absurd  tends to produce a drone-like ensemble as well, where you do not feel gradations of emotion or commitment to the party amongst the individuals. Perhaps the is the sacrifice in conveying the oppressing terror of uniformity: “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” However, Alexis DawTyne (Party Member: Julia) and Ryan Smetana (Party Member: Winston) were the most compelling to me in there ability to show slippage and fluctuation in their character’s commitment to Big Brother and the Thought Police. While their ostensible goal is always and only exposition—to reenact Winston Smith’s (Ford Bowers) diary during his trial—the nudity and compassion required threatens to enliven the very thing the Ministry of Love is attempting to eradicate. In small moments where Winston seems to accidentally admit he loves Julia in the real rather than in the fiction (as in, not prompted by the diary entries), exposition gives way to the actual development of an argument for the production as a whole.

Smith (Ford Bowers) is tortured to undo his knack for thinking. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann for The News-Gazette.

The part of Smith is equally difficult: how to resist a mad government while not seeming to be an extremist yourself. Furthermore, the performance of torture, and repeated varieties of torture whose goals seem entirely unclear, requires a difficult layering of emotions (fear, distress, pain, etc.). The destruction of his body in the production is intended to be analogous to the destruction of his mind by O’Brien (Ninos Baba): “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” This was visually successful, in that it was disturbing and discomfiting certainly, but seemed ultimately excessive in that the destructive energies were misplaced. In my understanding of Orwell’s novel, Smith stands in for the suffering of everyman, any man, and is not evaluated or valued on the merits of his individuation. We as an audience should not be compelled to have him saved as the act of resolution to the drama because he matters. He actually doesn’t, on his own terms. He hasn’t done anything noteworthy, treated his neighbors or lover with especial or heroic care. It is the threat of emptying out the meaning, the plasticity, the polysemy of language itself that censorship poses. The scenes in which the dictionary is being rewritten and the party member (Brandon Rivera) struggles with the supposed “imprecision” of language as a system of communication are included to distill the real violence Smith’s body attempts to bear: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” Ultimately, the production underscores the threats to personal freedom and the importance of individuated expression, but falls short in conceptually uniting—or, rather, applying some double-think—these rights as freedom of expression. The season promises to unravel variations in the definition of “freedom,” which may give us pause and cause to return to 1984.

Shakespeare bookends strong season at Krannert

Whether it was the overly-large glass of moscato or the fact that I have seen this play more times than I can remember, the Department of Theatre’s staging of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing was nothing short of delightful. As Kathleen Conlin’s going-away piece, it was a playful and coherent production with a number of factors going for it. The play is currently experiencing a vogue moment as a staple of most major theatre festivals around the country. The recent Joss Whedon interpretation, along with the perreniality of Branagh’s film version featuring Emma Thompson, have provided audiences with many strong versions to compare and a relatively refined vocabulary for reading this particular play. This is not to mention the international run-away success of the Q Brothers’ rap-adaptations of Shakepseare, of which Funk It Up About Nothin’ was their first, and a compelling modern-language retelling as part of the Shakespeare ReTold BBC mini-series. Where I have argued previously that Hamlet as a text needs a respite from the silver screen, despite all these versions I don’t think I can say the same for As You Like It.

While Thompson made it easy to forget the presence of Keanu Reeveswho might “infect to the north star” any good playin this version it is the Benedict (Thom Miller) who steals the show. As someone who studies collective performative phenomena like repertories and ensembles, it is often my contention (on this blog at least) that the key to a great production is a well-balanced cohort. In this case I would make an exception. I’ve been waiting for the department to give Miller a part to lead with, having thoroughly enjoyed his work in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, The Normal Heart, and his innovative take on Caliban in The Tempest. In Benedict he finally has smart words that challeges his range of embodiments. You get the sense that he is itching to speak directly to each individual spectator. Frequently he climbed up onto the very edge and lip of the stage, leaning out at far as that space would let him to make sure you were getting every detail. With this kindof physical range I was able to feel his emtotional extremes. A technique notably deployed in The Normal Heart, Miller is able to drop from the giddy to the serious in a breath to make lines like “If I do not love her, I am a fool” ring with an extential seriousness it does not immediately suggest on the page.

This is not to say Dina Monk’s Beatrice was weak-sauce by any means. If anything, it is the bitter bite the part of Beatrice is capable of, her ability to “laugh me out of myself, press me to death with wit” that can so easily overwhelm a Benedict. Miller’s physicality paired with his height could have overwhelmed most, but Monk keeps up, determined not to be lobbed with a review as “duller than a great thaw.” She has height and maturity that at times un-sexes a Beatrice, but this portrayl makes the knowing wit of middle-age sexya vision of love that I think resonates with many.

Monk is able to hold onto her femininity in part because of Neal Moeller’s Duke Claudio. A strange construction, I know, but let me explain. An aspect of this play I feel often goes underdeveloped in staging is the Duke’s desire for companionshipfirst playfully suggested between he and Hero, and then in a drunken off-hand proposal to Beatrice. The later is more important here, as Beatrice plays with honest embarrasment and surprised flattery. She has to turn him down, stutteringly, but for a moment our loyalties are torn: wouldn’t we want a ruler to have a smart wife, who we know is the neck that props up the royal crown? The suitability of the pairing is often downplayed in order to avoid mixing up the audiences’ feelings. But I like the mix-up, I like having my desire for the pairing of Beatrice and Benedict challenged.

There is a further unsettling ambiguity to the tradition of down-playing the suitability of Duke Claudio to either Hero or Beatrice, and it has to do with miscegenation. In the Branagh film, Denzel Washington as the only Black actor in the production makes the suggestion of mixed-race coupling that is blithely eschewed. More generally, were the Duke to marry the mildly aristocratic Hero or Beatrice, the play would give us a compelling vision of intrastatus mixing. In its version, Moeller’s Duke is drunk enough to speak his mind (if hyperbolically), saying too much of what he does mean, rather than Whedon’s take on drunkeness as summoning up a capability to commit to what we do not mean.

At base, understanding the Duke’s marriagability comes down to how early moderns may have perceived of drunkeness and precisely what inhibitions were lowered. While this bit of original practices may as yet be unarticulated, the material staging of the production does some creative work with a proscenium (read: eww) stage. It’s a striking serendipity that as a young girl I saw several of Conlin’s productions at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, during long summers visiting my grandparents in Las Vegas. Once I had read everything in their house and the strip had lost its novelty, we would take to hiking around Mount Charleston, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. My grandmother thinks there is no better thing than culture in a mountain cabin, so the open-air Shakespeare plays in the heart of ancient Western landscapes were a kind of heaven on Earth. To her final piece before retirement, Conlin seems to have brought that earthy capaciousness indoors.

The flexible design of viney marbling and working fountains cultivates an Italianate twist on the rocky landscapes of the Great West. With four doors, six entranceways, and a (sparingly-used) discovery space, the production placed a premium on continuous and multiplying action. What is most creative was the architecture countermand to the proscenium arch. Prosceniums, an operatic holdover, cuts off the audience from the performance, limiting and flattening the range of views a thrust offers to a single perspectivenot unlike a camera lens. No Shakespeare plays was designed with such a thing in mind: even the indoor theatres of Blackfriars and Whitefriars used thrusts or were nearly theatre-in-the-round. Here a mild thrust was built out and then steps built up to a kind of dias that matched and ringed the lip of the stage. Actors were blocked up and onto that dias frquently, right up to the edge and over the tops of the audience. The best way I can describe it is as an “antithrust,” working to match and enjamb the proscenium arch above to rebuild some of the lost perspective vertically rather than horizontally.

In light of the recent tradition, casting, and staging choices, I have begun to think of this play as an interrogation into the pleasure of disires. The play is a glutton in the excesses it takes with jealousy, love, with, humor, and affectation, playing each up to the extent of a pleasurable misprision by way of their extremes. But with the rejection and disguised death of Hero, we as audiences are rightly chastised in the emotional excesses we take from the playa gout to our aural feasting. That Benedict is willing to kill his bosom friend for his love of Beatrice stops the joy cold. It seems a reasonable censure, however, bringing the skirmish context that intigated the action back to the fore. This is why I prefer the darker ending of Hero refusing to take back her husband, rather than the reconciliatory comedic ending of multiple marriages the Krannert production selectsas do most mainstream productions. With reconciliation the trial of Hero’s reputation seems a passing fancy of little consequence, rather than the life altering significance the play initially posits. Perhaps this is why Othello has the power that it does: a marriage bed laden with two dead couples is the product of Cassio’s lost reputation. When only half the couples marry off, and the more ill-fit couple at that, this “misprision” echoes more of life’s realities rather than ensuring that every man has his mate. But as a last act, I suppose it would be unfair to deny a creator a fairwell whimsy of neat fits and happily ever afters.