Just when I thought that NoExit Performance, one of Indy’s most adventurous theatre groups, could not possibly be any edgier, it proved me wrong with its production of “1984.” I saw it opening night on Friday at a vacant building the company has converted into “Ministry Headquarters,” located at 1336 E. Washington Street, on Indy’s Near Eastside.
Pushing the boundaries with its site-specific productions, NoExit impressed me to no end in 2014 when it presented “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” directed by Mikael Burke, in the penthouse of Piccadilly Apartments on 16th Street. Featuring two actors playing a troubled couple, the audience followed them around from room to room in what was surely the most intimate theatre I had ever experienced. Talk about immersive. The same held true, but on a grander scale, with “1984.” The “Ministry Headquarters” which serve as the venue for the play is essentially a massive warehouse with partitions between the three large rooms where scenes were performed. Audience members followed the action from room to room where seating was available for those who wished to sit.
I once had a friend who appeared on a soap opera. Occasionally, I would visit her at the NYC studio where her show was taped. That set up was similar to NoExit’s, except that cameras followed the action much like a film set, as opposed to an audience. The layout of the “1984” production just added to its unconventional, interactive appeal.
Masterfully directed by NoExit’s artistic director Ryan Mullins and produced by executive producer Lukas Schooler, the riveting play is an adaptation by Matthew Dunster of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel “1984.” The themes of the story include the dangers of totalitarianism, psychological manipulation, physical control, and the withholding of information, history and language as mind control. Set in Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain, a province of the super state Oceania, the story portrays a world of perpetual war, public manipulation and omnipresent government surveillance. Overseeing the tyranny is the Party leader, Big Brother, who enjoys a cult of personality and who may or may not even exist. The party itself is made up of the privileged and elite who persecute individualism and independent thinking known as “thoughtcrimes” which is enforced by the “Thought Police.” It is generally acknowledged that Orwell’s novel was a critical and cautionary commentary on the dangers and excesses of the Communists under Joseph Stalin who ruled the former Soviet Union during the time of the novel’s publication.
Besides the unorthodox setting for NoExit’s newest work, its other major attraction was the superior acting of its leads and several of the supporting players. Chief among them was Ryan Ruckman. Known for his work locally in the comedy arena, funnyman Ruckman more than proved he has the chops for multi-dimensional, serious acting with his portrayal of the brooding, contemplative, intellectual Winston Smith, who despises the repressive, authoritarian government he lives under and who dreams of a revolution to end it. The scene in which his character is tortured for his resistance to the Party was among the most terrifying and compelling drama I have ever seen on any stage.
NoExit company member Georgeanna Smith Wade also excelled in her role as Winston’s lover Julia, who enjoys sex, is optimistic, lives in the moment and makes the best of her life. Hating the rigid, oppressive party, her rebellion against it is more personal than ideological. A fine, naturalistic actor, Smith Wade imbued her character with free-spirited qualities that were in stark contrast to Winston’s fatalistic outlook on life. I might add that the chemistry between Ruckman and Wade was thoroughly convincing. Coincidentally, Smith Wade played one of the two roles in the previously mentioned “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” and was outstanding in that piece as well.
David Ruark, one of local theatre’s finest character actors, also stood out. Though he seemed to struggle with his lines on opening night, his gaffes did not detract from his overall performance as O’Brien, a sophisticated, enigmatic member of the Inner Party who convinces Winston he’s also a member of the anti-party rebels. Later, though, he nonchalantly abuses Winston and brainwashes him in the name of the Party and admits that he pretended to be connected to the brotherhood of rebels to trap him into an act of open disloyalty. Ruark, as steely O’Brien, turned in a chilling performance in the previously mentioned torture scene in which he interrogates Winston with stunning brutality.
Adam Crowe effectively portrayed the kindly operator of a secondhand store who rents a room to Winston and Julia without a telescreen so they can carry on their affair. Later, it is discovered that he is a loyal, duplicitous member of the Thought Police.
Producer Schooler and his entire creative team, consisting of set and lighting designer Andrew Darr, video designer AnC Movies, sound designer Rob Funkhouser, props designers Mullins and Schooler, propaganda (signage) designer Dominic Senibaldi and costumer Ashley Elliot, all deserve praise for their ambitious yet effective production elements.
As far as the physical violence that takes place in several scenes, thanks to fight choreographer extraordinaire Rob Johansen, the beatings and torture that took place were realistic to the point of being cringeworthy.
During a time when a cult of personality seems bent on undermining civil rights and a uber-conservative climate exists in which citizens are pitted against one another, “1984” reminds us why we need to remain vigilant about our freedom in general. As it has in the past, NoExit Peformance lives up to its mission of creating social dialogue. If you attend with a guest or a group, you will have no shortage of things to think about and discuss as you drive away after seeing “1984.”It’s thought-provoking theatre that engages and the kind of storytelling that NoExit does extremely well.
NoExit Performance’s “1984” continues through Nov. 18. General admission tickets are $25, student/senior tickets are $18 and are first-come, first-serve. The first six tickets of every performance are $15. Industry night (Thursday Nov. 9) tickets are $12.50. To purchase tickets, visit noexitperformance.org.