Theatre Review: ‘1984’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of “1984” at Kavinoky Theatre.

19 days.

That’s how long the creative team at Kavinoky Theatre had to select and stage “1984” as the replacement for “To Kill a Mockingbird” when it was forced pulled the show from the season schedule.

. . .a powerful onstage drama. . .

Kavinoky’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell couldn’t quell the tremor in her voice as she recapped the whirlwind timeline from the day she received the cease and desist email to Friday’s opening night. She credited the cast and crew – particularly director Kyle LoConti – for making theatre magic happen. The production trajectory is usually significantly longer (think months, not days) and it takes a special level of commitment and craft to create the experience that is “1984.”

I’ll be blunt: Chris Avery (Winston) and Patrick Moltane (O’Brien) deserve Artie Awards this year for their stunning and powerful performances. The entire cast did the proverbial yeoman’s job on a short timeline with some heavy material, but these two performances were intense.  These two particular roles were dialogue-heavy and not the typical conversational give-and-take between characters. Some of their scenes were brutal, almost hard to watch, and boy, did they play it.

“1984” is based on George Orwell’s classic 1949 novel where he projected a world filled with newspeak under the watchful eye of big brother where thought police made short work of individualism and independent thought. Global war has divided the world. The “Party” meant fear…yet everyone had to be a party worker. Love was forbidden. Propaganda was prevalent.  Civilization was bleak.

This production was created by another two Brits (Orwell was British), Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, who worked most of the content through improvisation with a London cast.  It’s a clever set up: the story begins when a book club in the year 2050 is reading a book that looks back on this cruel world. As they discuss and reflect, this imagined world comes to life on stage and on dazzling, dizzying LED screen across the stage. This is where the propaganda flows freely, from chocorat (think chocolate),  and thick skinned oranges, and lots of off the wall political ramblings. O’Donnell and LoConti wisely and kindly found a place for everyone in the large “Mockingbird” production by casting them on stage or on this screen, even the youngest actors. Video designer Brian Milband made extraordinary use of the LED panels, sometimes pixelating and distorting the images to add extra creepiness. There are times when the images go dark, and the panels are bare: this is when they are at their eeriest, actually.  That feeling of the stark barrenness behind the imagery is compelling. The set itself is a black box with a few tables, industrial-looking stools, and minimal props: often simplicity is the hardest to pull off and set designer David King and prop manager/set dresser Diane Almeter Jones won this round. Brian Cavanagh had lights flashing and dimming and the house lights up and down at precise moments, again contributing to the “we’re all being watched” ethos. There’s a moment when the house lights were up that Winston implores the audience to help him and accuses us of just sitting there….a powerful, silent, poignant moment.

Alexs Malejs gives a well controlled performance as Julia, another Party member who wins Winston heart. She’s sturdy soldier and passionate lover. Costume designer Jessica Wegryzn dressed her in a drab khaki dress, with pops of bright red when needed. Similarly O’Brien is black-suited with crisp accents: he’s all business all the time.

It’s Kyle LoConti ‘s superb direction, risk taking, and energy that pulled all these elements together – in just 19 days – that created a dynamic work of theatre art. Brava to her bold vision and tenacity.  

More blunt talk: this show won’t be for everyone. It’s fierce and strong with some disturbing moments that will linger with you (do yourself a favor and book some free time when you leave, talk to friends, have a beverage, empty your mind for a spell). As Kavinoky embraces its new mission statement to broaden its reach across genre and bring a wider variety of shows to its audience, audience members need to remain open to new experiences on this venerable stage. O’Donnell has it right: a mix of classic drama, musicals, comedies that blend new and familiar offerings should build a strong and diverse audience base with something for everyone.  This is a production that deserves to be seen: give yourself that opportunity. Embrace something bold and different. Use this experience to create an important dialogue about the value of personal opinion, our freedoms as Americans, and how incredibly blessed we are in Western New York to have bold theatre choices and talented professionals available to us.

“1984” is a powerful onstage drama that was the result of a just as powerful off-stage drama. Team Kavinoky handled both initiatives with inimitable style. The tour de force dystopian drama onstage and the sophisticated and reasonable way O’Donnell et al managed the Mockingbird interruption are both extraordinary examples of how to manage quality theatre and a public relations crisis. And all it took was just 19 days.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“1984”  is onstage to April 7. For more information, click here.