In 1949 when George Orwell published “1984”, he offered his version of a bleak glimpse into a stark industrial emotionless time some thirty years into the future. With his first production as Hillsboro High School’s new drama teacher and theatrical director, Will Butler and the students who comprise the newly christened Hillsboro Players breath impressive life into the Orwellian dystopia some thirty years after the fictional subject’s original timeline.
Butler, who prior to accepting his current gig as Hillsboro High’s newest faculty member, made quite a name for himself in Nashville’s theatre community having starred in a number of regional productions, truly steps up not only his game as a director with a clear vision, but, in doing so with Hillsboro Players’ “1984”, raises the bar of expectation for high school productions as a whole.
While Orwell himself was often quoted as saying his work was not necessarily a future that would exist, but rather one that could come to fruition, in an age of virtually everyone living out their lives via instant gratification of social media, not to mention giving up the rights to images and words simply by uploading them to sites whose fine print mandates an immediate forfeit of ownership, it would seem that we are indeed living in a world not so different from “1984”‘s Big Brother monitored society.
For those who’ve not read “1984”, well, since 1984, or those who opted for the Cliff Notes version when they were in school, a refresher: The citizens of Oceania, located in a land called Airstrip One, formerly Great Britain, are being forced out of individualism and into a unified way of thinking and living known as IngSoc, or English Socialism. This new way of thinking, as mandated by the Inner Party, a hierarchy of elite members, is being enforced by the invention of a new language known as Newspeak. To implement this new way of thinking and speaking, Big Brother, the ruler of the Inner Party monitors virtually all activity via ever-present telescreens.
As the play opens, Winston Smith (Brayden Myrick) and others are seen working at the ironically named Ministry of Truth where they alter dictionaries, history books and news articles to suit the Party’s self-serving agenda.
Myrick, a Hillsboro senior, is exactly how you’d imagine a prime candidate for a seemingly utopian society. Physically fit, chiseled features and piercing eyes, but it’s his talent as an actor that’s truly eye-catching. Talented well beyond his years, Myrick’s first foray onto Hillsboro’s stage was just three years ago in a production of “Rent”. When Winston begins to show signs of resistance and interest in The Brotherhood, a counter-revolutionary group opposed to The Inner Party, he becomes the target of some pretty harrowing torture at the hands O’Brien (Alexander Latto). Latto, also a senior, commands his scenes as the double-crossing O’Brien, who Winston mistakenly trusts with his doubts of The Party’s mission.
True to the show’s pre-performance reminder that it’s been deemed “PG-13”, Latto and Myrick present these torture scenes with physicality and realism rarely seen in professional theatrical companies, let alone high school productions.
It’s interesting that the set, designed by director Butler, is cold and contains a decidedly sterile institutional feel with slate grey walls, industrial lights and simplistic, but functional workspaces for Winston and his Ministry of Truth associates. Interesting because it’s a brilliant manifestation of the Party’s message that individuality is forbidden. Butler’s set perfectly conveys the emotionless feel of Orwell’s absolute governed Oceania. A perfect contrast to the eventual emotionally-charged scenes between Myrick’s Winston and Latto’s O’Brien when Winston dare show signs of committing what Newspeak calls ‘thoughtcrime’.
Lighting designer Clayton Landiss masterfully further conveys the volatility of Smith’s rebellion to The Party with precisely planned and consummately executed lighting throughout the show. This is most effective when once scene switches to the next as an unexpected section of the set rises to reveal another part of the set glowing with blood-red light.
Myrick shows another side of Winston with the introduction of Julia (Alexandra McKenna), a soft-spoken girl who shares his desire to rebel against The Party. McKenna quickly presents a young woman torn between the confines of The Party’s ideals and her own burgeoning feelings of desire towards Myrick’s Winston. Adding much-needed levity to the tenseness of the subject matter, McKenna is charming during a scene when Julia attempts to reveal a more feminine side to Winston.
Injecting a bit more humor to an otherwise heavy and though-provoking show is Meagan Weber as Julia and Winston’s landlady. Her comedic timing and exaggerated movement is thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
Kudos too, to Butler for the fine attention to detail down to the succinct militaristic movement of stage hands as they literally march set pieces on and off stage between scenes. Speaking of between scenes, Butler proves his mettle by blaring disturbingly abrasive German metal tunes as interstitial musical when the stage is dark. Oh, and did I mention the inclusion of a live rat? That’s right, a huge rodent, perhaps on loan from Hillsboro High’s science department, adds just another level of uneasiness as it plays a major part in the ultimate undoing of Smith’s unwelcome rebellious attitude.
Then there’s the brilliant move of casting Christopher Bosen as the omnipresent Big Brother as Brian Russell as Emmanuel Goldstein, the original rebel. For those in attendance who are beyond the age of the student body of Hillsboro High, it was a nice wink including two of Nashville’s most recognized and beloved theatre actors in these roles.
Also of note are Hastings Wagamon as Loudspeaker, Thomas Wagner as Syme, Lilly Moore as Parsons and Benjamin Bowman as Martin. Each of these young actors help to create the palatable uneasiness of the piece. To offer one caution, because of the acoustics of Hillsboro’s auditorium, there were instances when the actor’s lines were lost when their voices were raised and emotional during a particularly volatile scene. Beyond that, this show is as near perfect a presentation of such intense work as has been showcased on any local professional stage.
Hillsboro Players’ “1984” continues at 3812 Hillsboro Pike, this week and next with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday, November 14, 15 and 17. Tickets are $5 for students, $8 for non-students, and are available for purchase in the lobby of the auditorium prior to each night’s 7:00 p.m. curtain. In the true spirit of “1984”‘s Big Brother, if you want to keep an eye of Hillsboro Players, follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for details of their Spring show, “Hairspray”.
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