I first saw Larry Cedar solo onstage in American Fiesta and similarly delighted in his work with director Thomas Bigley as the titular character in King Lear. This team now reunites (with assistance from Nick Neidorf who provides original music and sound design) to create Orwellian, a production that dramatizes three of George Orwell’s most famous works: Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Animal Farm (1945), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Cedar is also credited with adapting the books for stage.
It would seem quite a task to make Orwellian fresh and original, especially since “Orwellian” is now a phrase that is, itself, a common figure of speech. For example, despite Orwell’s basing Nineteen Eighty-Four on Soviet Union society, his ideas are ubiquitous in describing today’s America. Is not the spying telescreen merely the laptop or smartphone with which we access the Internet? Are we at war with Eastasia or Eurasia? Ever see Sean Hannity and his ilk provide a convincing, and expedient, flip-flopping to justify government policy for political purposes? The Two Minutes Hate? What else to call the replacement of news with angry punditry on the cable networks? We might as well add “Private is Public” as the new 4th slogan of the Party. It is therefore entirely reasonable that this production assumes (and will get) from its audience at least a passing knowledge of the general Orwellian themes.
The show opens strongly with Cedar, as Orwell, dramatizing a famous passage from Down and Out outlining his harried life working in a Parisian restaurant kitchen. This is solo showmanship at its finest: Cedar seamlessly slips into accents at breakneck speed as he portrays Orwell and co-workers, all the while providing a convincing pantomime to thoroughly illustrate the story without the aid of props and with only the barest of sets. Within a few minutes, Cedar has disappeared entirely and left us with the embodiment of Orwell himself. And a playful, rascally (if somewhat work exhausted), fully human Orwell at that.
A very exciting start, indeed.
Trouble begins, however, in the next short segment where Cedar has tasked himself to recite Old Major’s speech from Animal Farm. The issues are twofold. First, stripping this speech from the rest of the story’s satire tends to make it as interesting as listening to Karl Marx in 1848. Second, George Orwell didn’t write particularly great, character-driven dialog. Unlike, say, the memorable dialog from Charles Portis’ True Grit (which was lifted verbatim and plopped into several successful screenplays), Orwell’s written speech is terse, non-conversational, and not particularly suitable for the dramatic arts without some major rewrite. Cedar’s strict, literal faithfulness to Orwell’s words is the problem here. Fortunately this section is brief (although I would have enjoyed seeing Cedar sing “Beasts of England”) and doesn’t do irreparable damage to the momentum generated by the Down and Out segment.
The third and final segment, running about 2/3 of the 60 minute production time, is a highly distilled version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It begins, surprisingly, with Cedar reciting (as Winston Smith) a section of the Newspeak essay that Orwell attached to his novel as an appendix, before proceeding to the novel’s more dramatic first chapter and its famous opening line about clocks striking thirteen. This section of the production oscillates between scenes where Cedar recites the story (verbatim from the text) as the omniscient narrator to scenes where Cedar recites the story (again verbatim save for changing the tense from the third person singular to first person singular) as Winston Smith. The segment is very tight with precise lighting cues and lively pacing while Cedar moves from scene to scene creating far more space on the tiny bare stage than would seem possible.
The difficulty here is how Cedar chose to abridge the novel: he made Nineteen Eighty-Four about the love story between Winston and Julia and not the book’s real “love story” between Winston and Inner Party Member O’Brien. (After all, Winston’s final victory over himself occurs in the novel’s last sentence: “He loved Big Brother.”) In fact, O’Brien only appears very briefly in this adaptation and in an incidental, tacked-on way. Cedar’s stunning depiction of the final torture scene in Room 101 hints how much more drama could have been gleaned from the book had he found more space for O’Brien. The entire horror of Winston’s systematic and cruel “retraining to sanity” – the state’s method to control the individual by destroying objective reality, a common Orwellian theme – is completely absent here.
Cedar’s formidable characterization and storytelling are best served when freed from the restrictive prose of Orwell’s political satires. I would have been completely happy, and no less aware of the message on human dignity, to spend the entire hour – and quite possibly more – watching Cedar perform from just Orwell’s more intimate and personal memoir.
Final thoughts on the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival: Ich bin ein Frïnger
Originally published June 16, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.