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Back to the (Orwellian) future: it’s 1984 at the Krannert

1984. The title alone is enough for most to instantly conjure up vivid images of a bleak dystopian future presided over by an ominous all-seeing government. Even those who haven’t read George Orwell’s original novel are likely familiar with its iconic phrases, including “Thought Police”, “thoughtcrime”, and above all else, “Big Brother”.

Starting this week at Krannert, Michael Gene Sullivan’s critically-acclaimed adaptation of Orwell’s tale will be presented as the first of several Illinois Theatre Series productions chosen this year to explore the theme of censorship versus free expression. 

1984 is the story of “Ministry of Truth” employee Winston Smith, whose job is to rewrite old newspaper articles and alter photographs to match the new revisionist history promoted by the oppressive government that controls his world. Winston’s life takes a chilling turn after he begins rebelling against the government’s constant surveillance and makes contact with others in search of the truth. Though Orwell’s novel was written almost seventy years ago in the aftermath of World War II, the story feels as vitally relevant to society now as when it first appeared. 

Tom Mitchell, the director of the Krannert production, says that Sullivan’s adaptation of 1984, which premiered in 2006 while the “War on Terror” was still making daily headlines, speaks directly to many issues prominent in today’s culture. “There is a definite resonance with images of torture from Guantanamo,” he says of the torture the protagonist undergoes at the hands of the government as it attempts to ‘re-educate’ him. “The adaptation also makes connections with the re-writing of history that has been part of our recent culture, the surveillance that we experience, and the efforts by some elements in society to impose moral judgements on individuals.” 

Anyone who has dreary memories of studying the novel in high school English classes may be pleasantly surprised by this production’s edgy energy. The play’s setting, designed by faculty designer Michael Griggs, features an intimidating “tribunal room outfitted with surveillance cameras and microphones as well as imposing speakers and torture devices” and aims to help audience members quickly immerse themselves in the terrifying world of 1984. Mitchell also points to Sullivan’s decision to begin the play after Winston Smith’s arrest by the government, telling most of the rest of the story as flashbacks incorporated into his ‘re-education’, as giving the audience an immediately compelling entry point into the plot. 

Mitchell describes Sullivan’s 1984 as more American in feel than some other adaptations and very character-driven, and particularly praises it for its emphasis on the relationship between Winston and Julia, the woman who becomes his partner in thoughtcrime. Working with a cast of 20-something students rather than older actors was a plus for this production, Mitchell says, giving “an edge to the production that makes it a bit more exciting.” 

If you’re interested in joining the resistance, stealthily contact the Krannert Box Office to get your tickets before Big Brother catches you thinking about it. If you intend to induct your children, please be advised that this show contains strong adult content — for mature audiences only.

1984 will be performed at 7:30 PM October 15th-17th and October 22nd-24th. There is a 3 PM performance on Sunday, October 25th. Tickets are $25. Discounted tickets are $24 for senior citizens, $15 for students, or $10 for University of Illinois students and youth. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 217-333-6280.

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