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.

First Look: ‘1984’ by George Orwell at Kavinoky Theatre

In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch tells his young son, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

Loraine O’Donnell, Kavinoky Theatre’s executive artistic director has lived with this sentiment the past week, since another production company sent her a ‘cease and desist’ email which pulled the plug on Kav’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” a scant two weeks before opening night.

To recap, there is a legal dispute brewing over the rights of the stage adaptation of this beloved American novel. Kavinoky had a signed contract to mount the 1969 Christopher Sergel production. Even though this is not the adaptation currently on Broadway, the production company who owns those rights has threatened legal action against any theatre company – professional and community, around the world – if other productions are mounted during the Broadway run. Read the full story here.

O’Donnell and director Kyle LoConti had to pivot. Quickly.  Pulling a production from the season schedule was not an option.

“It’s very frustrating,” O’Donnell sighed.  “We started thinking about what show can we do with this existing, beautiful set?”  Then she had a brainstorm: why not stage the 2013 adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian drama “1984.”  It’s a classic drama, it’s in schools’ curricula (this is important as many local schools had already booked weekday ‘Mockingbird’ performances), it would be a regional premier, and its brief stay on Broadway ended in October, 2018. And the content couldn’t be more timely: fake news, propaganda, corrupt government, and Big Brother watching over all. “I’ve had this in my thoughts for years,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell and LoConti made the decision to push the start date back a week to March 15, too, which will allow an extra week of prep without throwing the balance of the season off kilter.

This version of “1984 by George Orwell” was adapted by two Brits, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, “who became entranced with the novel’s appendix, which hardly anyone reads,” says O’Donnell. “The play begins when the year 1984 ends and it continues to 2050 in flashes.” Much of the script was developed in rehearsal, from improvisation by the first cast.

LoConti was on-board as director. Almost every member of the ‘Mockingbird’ cast would have roles too, except for the six children (originally cast in two teams of three) and two cast members whose schedules couldn’t accommodate the new run dates.

This sparked another inspiration: instead of tasking the uber-talented Kav set designer David King to start from scratch and build out the stage again, Kav could use its high-tech LED screen panels to full advantage, stretching 20-feet across the entire width of the stage.

Kavinoky’s LED screen is unique in the region, too. The theatre purchased the panels in 2017  (The purchase of the LED curtains are supported by a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo with funds from its J. Warren and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund) and O’Donnell said at the time that this innovative technology would be a game changer for the theatre. So far the panels were used as accents or complements to full out sets, particularly in “Mamma Mia!” last season and “Sweeney Todd” this season. This time the curtains will be the focal point. “Brian Milbrand, our video guy, is so excited about this, it’s right up his alley,” said O’Donnell.

The plan is to display the propaganda that is central to the story on the LED curtain, and to depict some of the more graphic elements of the script in creative ways. The six children and two adult actors who couldn’t participate in this production, will be seen in cameo videos this way, as well.  There will be live feed cameras on stage, too, to show the characters’ point of view, and screens in the audience, to give an authentic “big brother is watching” you feel to this immersive experience. O’Donnell said the audience “will have the idea of being constantly watched and monitored.”

O’Donnell is quick to praise the commitment and devotion of the cast and the Kav crew, with particular props to LoConti as the director. “Kyle went from directing a beautiful piece of theatre on her bucket list to something she probably didn’t want to direct. And in a very few days, she’s done a lot of research and preparation. She is amazing.”

O’Donnell is enthusiastic. “This will be a quick three week rehearsal period,” she said, “And it’s spectacular play.”

And that, Atticus Finch, takes courage, and the ability to see it through to the very end.

“1984 by George Orwell” is onstage March 15 to April 7. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for tickets and details.