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Theater review: '1984' makes its case for renewed relevance

WAR IS PEACE.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In the first class in Media & Society each semester we consider which dystopian novel successfully predicted the world in which we now live: George Orwell's "1984" or Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." The academic consensus favors Huxley, that the truth has not been replaced by lies but rather buried under a barrage of irrelevance.

However, the striking production of "1984" directed by Robert Lee that opened at the Underground on Thursday night makes a compelling case for reconsidering that verdict. Orwell's book again became a best-seller in the wake of the inauguration, and contemporary parallels are easy to find.

Winston Smith (Jonathan Manchester) works in the Ministry of Truth, next to Syme (KT Magnolia), an ardent true believer, and Parsons (Justin Peck), an overly enthusiastic "Good Oceanic." The suddenly empty desk next to Smith is filled by Julia (Kitara Peterson), who turns out to be a kindred dissident.

The harsh realities of Oceania dictate that the performances are somewhat muted. Here the smallest gestures and intonations signify happiness, while the biggest reactions are served for the twin pillars of hate and fear. The slight British accents foster the illusion this is not the dystopia yet to come.

As O'Brien, John Pokrzywinski's sonorous voice of reason has a dark edge this time around. The cast plays multiple roles, with Cheryl Skafte as a cackling landlady, Bethany Westerberg as a creepy-voiced Minitru messenger, Joe Birdseye as the vendor of Victory Coffee, and Seth Hannasch as a carefully observant butler.

The most stunning aspects of this production are the double-plus good projections of Daniel Benoit, displayed on eight screens in a symmetrical arrangement. The projections are their most effective during the dramatic pronouncements from the Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love and Plenty, but they also create the sense of place for the setting of each scene.

There is never a point where the images overwhelm the actors, although there are intense moments combining striking images and a screaming mob. The flicking images of the omnipresent telescreens hint at hidden terrors and even faded yellow wallpaper strikes you as an ominous portent.

I have not read "1984" since high school, but the tale remains as oppressively depressing as I recall. Orwell's novel is stripped down to its essentials in this streamlined 80-minute adaptation by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall and William A. Miles, Jr. There is a slight sense of fast forwarding through Smith's time in Room 101, but that is probably a blessing for the audience.

How does "1984" resonate in 2017? The omnipresent governmental surveillance by Big Brother envisioned by Orwell does not exist (we do it to ourselves with smartphones). Instead, it is Newspeak and Syme's description of the vital importance of destroying words to help control thoughts that rings ominously true.

Surely Syme would see "fake news" as an obviously unnecessary redundancy. Perhaps the biggest difference between Orwell and today is that here the government and media are still separate entities.

Remember, Citizens. 2 + 2 is 5. 2 + 2 is 5. Repeat.

If you go:

• What: George Orwell's "1984"

• Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 14

• Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthunderground.org

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