by Jerome Davis*

Watching The Actors’ Gang’s production of George Orwell’s 1984, presented Sept. 16th by N.C. State University Center Stage, is like observing an autopsy. You know what’s coming and you steel yourself for it, but it’s the details that get you. As the cast sliced into the material before a packed audience at NCSU’s Stewart Theatre on Saturday night, I realized that many of the young students in attendance had never read Orwell’s grieving fable; and did not, in fact, know what was coming. Or if they had read it, they had never “gotten it,” words on a page being somewhat less persuasive in some instances than a flesh-and-blood recitation. They leaned forward in their seats, perplexed, indignant, instinctively knowing what was coming but unable to look away.

A confident and well-drilled acting ensemble is a joy to behold. If they have an interesting work to present, they know it will have its way with the audience by the time the final “curtain” falls; and they go about their business with simplicity and bravado. Such was the case Saturday. The Actors’ Gang is a politically savvy, disciplined 25-year-old company from that most unlikely of places, Los Angeles. The actors were loose, humorful, at ease with the material, not pushing too hard.

Many in the packed auditorium had doubtlessly come to see the work of film star Tim Robbins, who directed the production and presides over The Actors’ Gang. Though Robbins, of course, was not in town, his work and his political philosophy was laid out on the table for all to see in this provocative, clever adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan.

Orwell wrote 1984 shortly after World War II ended. Hitler, Mussolini, and the boys had been banished to the dustbin of history; and the world was in celebration mode. Orwell saw below the skin, though, to a festering sore that would shortly burst in the form of McCarthyism and worse.

In this 1984, a single individual is interrogated about events in his recent past. The interrogators are representatives of a fascistic state whose leader, the charismatic Big Brother, breeds a kind of fanaticism in his followers and in his critics alike through the manipulation of the news media and control of language. One of Big Brother’s mantras, repeated several times throughout the evening, is “He who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future.” If any of this strikes a chord of relevance for you, then you will understand what drew the outspoken lefty Mr. Robbins to the material.

In The Actors’ Gang’s adaptation of 1984, the pleasure and horror of the story is, in fact, in the details. The ensemble of five men and one woman move in sync like a drill squad—like a “well oiled machine”—lining themselves up, down, and sideways; stomping and strutting with crisp precision, in an effort to mirror the lockstep mentality the State has imposed. Only P. Adam Walsh, as the individualist thinker, 6079 Smith (first name: Winston), stands apart, trembling, undulating, spazzing, even salivating in a performance that is a visual representation of the intricate bag of blood, flesh, and bones that is the most complex of machines, the human being.

6079 Smith finds humor in his dire situation, wired as he is, first, into two long, metallic tentacles that occasionally jolt his world and, later, strapped into a chair that does not look like a pleasant place to be, with bolts and braces and, finally, the diabolical “worst thing in the world” which comes in the form of a cumbersome piece of headwear that sent shivers down the spines of the 600 or so gathered at the Stewart that night. When he is told over and over “You must be precise,” he prickles; but then when the interrogator’s question is lax, he perks up, smirking, and responds back “You must be precise.” A jolt of electric persuasion inevitably follows.

Robbins’ production and, indeed, the adaptation by Sullivan, use every cheesy device to drive home their theme, from the single scenic element (designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer), all 90-degree angles and non-too-subtle steel cage (or is it a rib cage?) with monitoring eyes that light up with the face of the omnipresent Big Brother’s media reps, to the “white light, white heat” illumination of designer Bosco Flanagan, to the Men-in-Black costuming of Allison Leach, to the chamber of horrors sound design (uncredited).

My one wish after observing this well-scripted, well-staged production is that Sullivan hadn’t relied so heavily on sex as the antidote to fascism. I suspect there was plenty of sex in the Third Reich, and it didn’t prevent a damn thing.

The story essentially is the same one told later and with almost as much unhinged glee by Woody Allen in Sleeper: Winston Smith is a common man who runs into a somewhat randy free thinker, Julia. They each realize that within the other is a kindred spirit, unwilling to live the formalized, clinical life prescribed for them by their government.

Wishing to join the underground, headed by Big Brother’s nemesis, the enigmatic, unseen rebel leader Goldstein, they visit a representative of the state, the smooth-talking O’Brien (played with suave detachment by Keythe Farley). Though O’Brien is plenty for Big Brother in public, rumor has it that he is secretly a Goldstein man.

When Winston and Julia meet him, O’Brien asks the pertinent questions: “Are you willing to do anything for what you believe in? Even kill innocent people?” Smith and Julia nod yes. In the evening’s most unsettling moment (which is saying a lot!), for a brief instant you can all but see the homemade bombs strapped to their chests. They are quickly arrested by Big Brother’s holding company.

All of these and other incidents are played out in the dimly lit cell where 6079 Smith stands (or, more often, lies) whimpering and wired for the kill. Justin Zsebe, Kaili Hollister, V.J. Foster, and Steven M. Porter form a quartet of interrogators whose intentions make Abu Ghraib look like a Sunday afternoon social. Although they know his story backwards and forwards, they tell Smith “It is important that you say it” and walk him through his bleak, recent history with each of them stepping in to play Smith, Julia (the acrobatic Ms. Hollister), O’Brien, and other characters in his tale.

V.J. Foster’s rubber-faced virtuosity stands out in his portrayal of a number of recognizably human monsters. In one harrowing recollection, Smith details an incident when he fell into a pit, his fall broken by a woman whose body turned out to be, not only long deceased, but the unwitting host of an assemblage of carnivorous rats. This unappetizing image turns out to be not only Smith’s ultimate undoing but, in Orwell’s view, a seamless metaphor for what the carcass of any great nation can become if it is unwilling or unable to shed fascistic dictators who manipulate truth and, perhaps most importantly, language, into a thing to suit their unsavory needs.

As I watched the play Saturday night, I thought about the word “fascist” and the current not-so-intense debate over whether or not it applies to Islamic radicals. At the end of Molly Ivins’ unsubtly titled book Bushwhacked, she turns to a writer who knew something about the subject for a definition. “Fascism should more appropriately be called ‘corporatism,’ for it is the merger of the corporation and the state.” The writer was Benito Mussolini. He should know. By now, so should we all.


*Editor’s Note: Critically acclaimed actor, director, and playwright Jerome Davis is the founding artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company of Raleigh, NC (, which kicks off its 10th anniversary season Thursday with 1776. Davis previously worked at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI; People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, PA; the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison; the Phoenix Theatre at SUNY/Purchase; Wellfleet Harbor Actors’ Theatre in Cape Cod, MA; and Columbia University, Soho Rep, New Dramatists, Avalon Rep, and the MINT Theatre in New York City. A native of Murfreesboro, TN, Jerry Davis studied in New York with Uta Hagen, Nikos Psacharapolous, and Julie Bovasso. Davis co-wrote The Man Who Tried to Save the World with Brooklyn playwright Floraine Kay. That timely topical drama about the disappearance in Chechnya and presumed murder of legendary disaster-relief worker Fred Cuny, a.k.a. the “Master of Disaster,” premiered at Burning Coal in May 2004.

N.C. State University Center Stage: The Actors’ Gang: [inactive 9/07]. 1984: [inactive 9/07]. Study Guide: [inactive 9/07].