Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Santa Fe Playhouse
Review by Mark Dunn

Also see Dean's review of The Shadow Box

Vaughn Irving and Tallis Rose
Photo by Lynn Roylance
My most popular novel "Ella Minnow Pea" (about outlawed letters of the alphabet) has been most often compared with Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," but references to George Orwell's "1984" come up as well. The thing is: I'd prefer my book not be put in the same harrowing category as (going back to when I first read it as a teen) "the one about the rats."

There were a lot of teens in the packed house that watched the first performance of Santa Fe Playhouse's production of the stage adaptation of Orwell's chilling dystopian classic, and they remained—like me—riveted throughout. The production is both powerful and terrifying—the scariest thing you're liable to see on a Santa Fe stage anytime soon, masterfully staged by director Robyn Rikoon with a deft use of futuristic technological intrusion overlaid with austere decorative antisepsis. Even the set changes are choreographed as acknowledgments of the martial regimentation of a society in which movement is directed and circumscribed with robotic precision. One of the many goosebump moments comes after the capture of protagonist Winston Smith and his new wife Julia, when the set change becomes conversely hurried and chaotic, reflective of the characters' unfortunate descent into the horrors of the "Ministry of Love," where torture and brainwashing are mandated.

The script, adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall, Jr., and William A. Miles, follows the book in some seminal ways (Newspeak and the verities of a world constantly at war being a couple of examples), but it takes dramatic liberties by expanding on Winston and Julia's relationship and fleshing out a visceral humanity which Orwell's novel disallows. And it is the cast in the Playhouse's new production who take full advantage of these liberties by putting real faces on the characters they embody—to limn those characters' fears and frustrations with aching humanity. Several actors in this production do this with a precision and attendance to character-creation that one seldom sees in community theatre. As Smith's fellow workers in the Ministry of Truth (where the past is rewritten to reflect the exigencies of the present), Marguerite Louise Scott as Parsons and David Anderson as Syme explore depths to their characters that make them real and heartbreakingly engaging. Likewise, Libby King's turn as Winston and Julia's "Prole" (proletarian) landlady would be deemed shamefully scene-stealing, were it not for how skillfully her warm humor is integrated into her scenes. I was impressed, as well, by Hania Stocker's measured, almost professorial, performance as O'Brien—a high level official ultimately responsible for Winston and Julia's fate.

But the performances that kept both me and that packed multi-generational house leaning forward in our seats, especially through the production's hair-raising second act, were Vaughn Irving as Winston Smith and Tallis Rose as his beloved Julia. Their chemistry on stage is instantaneous, their chops as actors nonpareil in a town filled with talented thespians. There are fifty reasons to come and see this show, but Irving and Rose should be listed close to the top.

Kudos to other members of this large ensemble, and even to those actors called upon to appear videographically in its telescreened interludes and as part of "Big-Brother-is-Watching-You" transceivered wallpaper. All the video comes courtesy of skilled filmmaker Freedom Hopkins. All of the production's aesthetic contributions are perfectly rendered—Michael Blake Oldham's Metropolis-reminiscent uniforms, as well as his spare, utilitarian set and evocative lighting design. The sound design by Joshua Allan Billiter is marked by music and effects contributory to an environment of fear and uncertainty.

It would be a disservice to the reader of this review not to address the elephant in the room. It's an elephant that the Santa Fe Playhouse itself addressed head-on by arranging a forum several weeks earlier to discuss the upcoming production in the context of today's political reality. Even though 1984 was selected for the theater's current season long before Donald Trump became president, comparisons between the Trump administration and the Kafkaesque, tyrannical world created by the English author whose name would later become an adjective, are inevitable. And one cannot watch this play in ignorance of the cloud of current events.

There is a moment early in the play where director Rikoon has workers in the Ministry of Truth watching the conspiratorial antithesis of Big Brother—one Mr. Goldstein—expound on the telescreen. The crowd is riled to the point of shouting and raising their fists at the screen. Julia slings a book angrily in its direction. I waited to hear from this inflamed rabble something along the order of "lock him up."

Still more chilling to me—in this inevitable world of life imitating art—was Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway's use of the phrase "alternative facts" to defend the administration's contention that Trump's inaugural crowd size had far surpassed that of Obama's four years earlier. At the time, the phrase elicited comparisons with Orwellian "Newspeak." As a result of this media contretemps, sales of "1984" rose 9,500 percent, taking the book to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.

Winston Smith is forced under torture to embrace the "alternative fact" that "2 + 2 = 5." His earlier refusal to accept this faux-verity constitutes the bone-chilling acme of Irving's spellbinding performance. In defending her own defense of alternative facts, Ms. Conway made sure that we knew that "Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. These are alternative facts." Thank you for the unintended reminder of "1984," Ms. Conway, and both you and everyone in a certain presidential administration should give thought to coming to Santa Fe and seeing this phenomenal production of what I hope we can all agree is a cautionary tale and not a fait accompli.

Don't put off getting tickets for this incredible show, folks. I smell hotcakes.

And with regard to those rats ... don't ask.

1984, directed by Robyn Rikoon, is being performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Through April 16, 2017. Info at or 505-988-4262. The running time is a little over 2 ¼ hours; there is one intermission.

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