Arguably more timeless than other classics, George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” reminds us that the future is indeed now. While written in 1944, the cautionary tale warning of the dangers of omnipresent surveillance and so-called double speak is eerily of-the-moment, as Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of the iconic narrative for the stage makes clear. On Friday, the nonprofit Aquila Theatre, which has been committed to increasing exposure of great literary works to modern audiences since 1991, kicks off a multi-city nationwide tour of the production at Patchogue Theatre.
“What gets me the most is that just when we think Winston is a hero,” says Aquila’s artistic director Desiree Sanchez of Orwell’s rebellious protagonist, “he confesses he would do terrible things to fight against the regime. I see that happening in our current culture — mania, lack of clarity, taking devotion to a cause to the extreme.”
To be sure, theatergoers are likely to experience a sense of discomfort immersed in the repressive environment evoked in Orwell’s final work. The strobe lights, blackouts and jackhammering sounds featured in the 2017 Broadway adaptation even provoked audience members to scream, faint, vomit and, yes — after an escalating argument — get arrested. Olivia Wilde, cast in the role of Winston’s lover Julia, broke her tailbone and dislocated a rib during the show’s previews. Commented Reed Birney, who played Inner Party member O’Brien in the limited engagement, “If people don’t pass out, I hope they’re reminded of our power as citizens, and our responsibility as human beings to each other.”
“The element of torture is appropriate in the telling of the story,” asserts Sanchez. “You should be disturbed, but probably not physically ill.” The tack the director takes in the Aquila production to elicit our unease still relies on physical manipulation, but one more subtly conveyed.
Sanchez, who was a dancer for 20 years, including a stint with the Boston Ballet and as a principal with the Metropolitan Opera, pays particular attention to the actors’ movements. “They are not just internalizing but physicalizing what they are feeling,” she says, “putting it out there for the audience. The way people intersect in space, in counterpoint, speaks volumes without any words needed.”
Unlike Big Brother, Sanchez wants her audience not to just listen but to trust what it sees. “Whether for or against a ruling party, if a cause needs us to react inhumanely, then it seems we need to reevaluate,” she says.
While “1984” is long gone on the calendar, its reemergence at the Patchogue Theatre signals that its message — for all parties — still resonates
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, Patchogue Theatre, 71. Main St.
INFO $20-$49; 631-207-1313, patchoguetheatre.org