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Arts & Culture

‘1984’ on-stage in Williamston

Courtesy Williamston Theatre
Full cast of Williamston Theatre's '1984'

George Orwell’s 1984 was first published in 1949, but it still resonates with many today. We'll go to the Williamston Theatre and learn about the Michigan premiere performance of a stage adaptation of Orwell’s famed book.

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election here in the US, there was a well-documented resurgence of fiction novels dealing with authoritarian and dystopian futures. But one book returned atop the best seller list thanks to a 9500% increase in sales according the publisher Penguin USA. That book is George Orwell’s 1984. Which means that the Williamston Theatre must have a Nostradamus handling its artistic planning.

"Yeah, yeah, it's funny. We scheduled this a year and a half ago." says Tony Caselli, artistic director of the Williamston Theatre who also directs this adaptation of 1984. "You know, some of that was definitely brought about by the things in our world, the political climate getting, you know, pretty contentious, and things getting scary. But then all of a sudden, it is at the top of the New York Times best seller list, and Amazon has sold out of it, and the publishers are ordering more printings and things. And all of that has to do with, you know, I think people are connecting it to different political things going on in the US, rightly so or not, that's not really what the play is about; you know, the book was in 1949, before anybody around came into power, but, unfortunately, you know, some of the things that are going on have people looking back at this book. So yeah, it's always been important. "

A slight spoiler alert for those who’ve not encountered 1984, the protagonist of the book and the play at the Williamston Theatre is Winston Smith, a low level clerk who defies the government and his party, is then captured and brainwashed into submission. It’s dark material for actor David Wolber, who portrays Winston, but how does he tap into that pain? "That's a good question. I haven't been tortured in the way that Winston is physically and mentally tortured. I am aware of, you know, physical pain, I've experienced it in my life. And I've, um, I think everybody I know who's lived a certain number of year has, has lived through some sort of pain, or torture, or regret, right? And I think those things, tapping into those, and making those even more excruciating than they were, drawing on those past experiences is one way. But I think, a lot of it's imagination, and it's also what the designers are bringing to it: the sound, the props, and the set design, and what they're giving us as tools to help us portray some of the more difficult aspects of the physical. I think that's the way that we're dealing with it." explains Wolber.

While the novel of Orwell’s 1984 begins with a normal day in the oppressive life of Winston Smith and crescendos into his capture and brainwashing sessions. Michael Gene Sullivan’s stage adaptation of 1984, begins with the torture scene and is told through flashbacks enacted by other similarly oppressed citizens.

"You sort of are dragged through everything that happened beforehand via this capture device of the party members who have to sort of have to drag him through his diary and make him confess to things." says director Caselli. "And,so it's really cool! It's funny, I keep finding myself when talking about the play going 'oh. it's such a fun thing!', and then, and then I have to also back track that and go 'fun for a dystopian future that involves a lot of torture and brainwashing,' you know. Haha!"

The Williamson Theatre's stage production of Orwell’s 1984 runs Thursdays thru Sundays, from now to April 23rd.  Tickets and more information are available at Williamston Theatre.org

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