When the Kavinoky Theatre was notified three weeks before its play "To Kill a Mockingbird" was set to open that New York City producers were planning to block other "Mockingbird" productions while their adaptation of the book was running on Broadway, it looked like their goose was cooked.
Support for the play and its large cast had been excellent, partly because everyone remembers Atticus Finch and Boo Radley from high school, or at least has an image in their mind of Gregory Peck standing in court in his vested suit. "To Kill a Mockingbird," a tale of bittersweet triumph over tragedy and hatred, is one of the best-loved books and movies of the 20th century. Expectations were that the play would be no different.
But considering the resources of small regional theaters, Kavinoky had only two real choices. Unable to fight the threat, it could either cancel and go dark until its next scheduled show, "Equivocation," in April, or it could regroup and try to pull another show together. Another show was pulled together, in 19 days.
Artistic director Loraine O'Donnell has said they chose "1984" because, like "Mockingbird," it was considered a modern classic and was often taught in school. Unlike "Mockingbird," however, "1984" is a very different type of tale. Unlike with Atticus, the name of "1984" protagonist Winston Smith isn't well known and won't be found in the pantheon of literary heroes. What is far better remembered is the slogan plastered all over Winston's world: Big Brother Is Watching You.
Published in the post-war world of 1949, George Orwell's cautionary story of a controlling dystopian society also gave us the adjective Orwellian, one that has been bantered about a lot in recent years as technology and social media insert themselves ever more deeply in people's personal lives.
Those who recall the 1984 Super Bowl ad for Macintosh computers, in which a woman flings a hammer through a gigantic screen of Big Brother's emissary speaking to his sheeple, might now find its tagline ironic. Because of personal computers like the Mac, the ad said, 1984 "won't be like '1984.'"
Which brings us to the Kavinoky stage, where Chris Avery is practically giving his life while portraying Winston in a very up-to-date adaptation of the 70-year-old warning. Aleks Malejs plays Julia, his partner in love and resistance, as an earthy, thinking romantic, and Patrick Moltane is diabolically controlling as the manipulative O'Brien.
The characters live on a stark gray set designed by David King, but they are not alone. We watch them live and onscreen, with video constantly playing on large screen above them. Sometimes we see the players, other times they are dominated by images of goose-stepping Nazis, children eating fruit or fractured advice and self-improvement videos, courtesy of video designer Brian Milbrand.
[Related: Broadway producer of "Mockingbird" partially backs down, but too late for Buffalo]
Parts of the play by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan are talky and dense, appropriate for delivering the mangled manifesto to the masses. Terms like "Thought Crime" and "Doublethink" pop out, as the Party exercises control by designing its own truth in a forest of deliberate lies, or, as they are known today, alternative facts.
Director Kyle LoConti and the cast pull this all together so well that you can feel it in your stomach as the true nature of what is happening sinks in, so much so that there is a shock of recognition when we hear that "the people" will never revolt, because "they are not going to look up from their screens long enough to notice what is happening."
The climax of "1984" is torturous and hard to watch. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time to look up from our screens.
Nice save, by all involved, Kavinoky.
3 stars (out of four)
Presented through April 7 at Kavinoky Theatre on the D'Youville College campus, 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $45, $40 for seniors, at the box office or through kavinokytheatre.com.
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