1984 at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

There is a show running in Frederick.

WHAT SHOW. YOU MUST BE PRECISE.

There is a production of George Orwell’s 1984 as adapted to the stage by Michael Gene Sullivan running at a theatre in Frederick.

WHERE. YOU MUST BE PRECISE.

There is a production of George Orwell’s 1984 as adapted to the stage by Michael Gene Sullivan running at The Maryland Ensemble Theatre. I must be precise. 1984, Directed by Julie Herber, is running through the 12th of November 2017 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre and is the second show of their 2017/2018 mainstage season. I must be precise. Big Brother is watching.

The company of 1984 at the Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
The company of 1984 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Harrowing dystopian dysfunctionality at its peak does not begin to describe what is happening on the intimately configured stage for this production of 1984. Big Brother is watching…so those words will have to suffice. I love Big Brother. There is a gray enclosure; it sits like an ordinary space. It has always been an ordinary space, crafted by Scenic Designer Wheeler Stone, so why would anyone remember it to be a derelict and decrepit torture chamber, slopped in shades of gray representing the grime of human filth when it has merely been an ordinary space? Big Brother is watching. Note the ordinary walls, how safely they contain the citizens. And how there are telescreens wherever you look. This is useful for inner party member Daniel Wyland, who of course is responsible for the design of video projections. They are full of fearful imagery. They show citizens hope, bring citizens good news, and encourage a fully immersive experience. Big Brother is watching. I must be precise.

There are things— a journal. WHAT JOURNAL. YOU MUST BE PRECISE. Properties Engineer Vanessa Strickland has fabricated four identical gray journals, filled with the writing of Winston and the detailing is superb. This aligns with so many other highly nuanced articles featured in the production. Strickland is a good citizen. Thom Huenger and Paul Shillinger are good citizens. They provide us light and sound. There’s nothing quite like the horrifying combination of these two elements when torture is in play. Big Brother is watching. And let’s not forget to thank Citizen Stephanie Hyder, who has furnished everyone with fine functioning jumpsuits. WHAT JUMPSUITS. YOU MUST REMEMBER. YOU MUST BE PRECISE. Hyder, who is also a Good Citizen, for providing monotone gray functional one-piece multi-purpose suits, masters the costumes of this production well. Everyone is the same. Everyone looks the same. Big Brother is watching.

(L to R) Daniel Valentin-Morales, Steve Custer, J. D. Severt, and Margaret Anne Murphy all being Good CitizensMET
(L to R) Daniel Valentin-Morales, Steve Custer, J. D. Severt, and Margaret Anne Murphy all being Good Citizens

Leading this exercise is the commanding force, a very good citizen, Julie Herber. Taking direction over all and creating a world where only Big Brother is good and all else must be conditioned to see that 2 + 2 equals 5…Citizen Herber brings an approved style of directing to the show. A signature mark— approved by Big Brother, of course— of the edgy and almost dance-like choreographic blocking, bleeds its way into the performance given by the other citizens. Herber’s use of sound augmentation to keep O’Brien heard until it is time for him to be seen, is nothing short of frightening genius that fits exceedingly well into the scene laid before the audiences’ eyes. There is a mark of perfection in the ordinary play space; there is something unnaturally hive-minded about the happenings that Herber oversees. Big Brother is watching. Citizen Julie Herber is precise. Citizen Julie Herber is exacting with her meticulous work. She is a good citizen.

There are party members, moving like clockwork inside this chamber of interrogation. THAT IS NOT HOW IT IS, DO NOT REMEMBER WHAT IS NOT REAL. Fine, they move like well-oiled cogs in a flawless machine inside the perfectly ordinary gray playing space. First Party Member, Second Party Member, Third Party Member, and Fourth Party Member— Daniel Valentîn-Morales, Margaret Anne Murphy, J.D. Sivert, Steve Custer— are all good citizens, forcibly re-enacting WHAT WAS THAT? The four good citizens are generously recreating a play-by-play of what has happened inside Winston’s memory, wherein Valentîn-Morales serves as the live-time Winston. This quartet of— truth-telling and flawless individuals are exacting in their work down to the last detail. Whether it is Steve Custer generously reaching into his deep bench of vocal affectations to more convincingly recreate the old antiques shopkeeper or J.D. Sivert going off the rails in frustration over non-existent words— no, I won’t print it here— all four of these good citizens are quite extraordinary in their work. Big Brother is watching.

Margaret Anne Murphy (left) and Daniel Valentin-Morales (right) in 1984MET
Margaret Anne Murphy (left) and Daniel Valentin-Morales (right) in 1984

Especially Valentîn-Morales and Margaret Anne Murphy. As they are left to do the sordid retelling bits of Winston’s tale, it is important that they embrace their task fully, as they— like us all— must be precise. Murphy is passionate. She is a good citizen. Valentîn-Morales is honest. He is a good citizen. Big Brother is watching. They share no transgressions that aren’t outlined to the epitome of perfect recreation by what information is uncovered inside of Winston’s notebook, after all. They are good citizens. Not like Winston (Matt Lee.) Winston is trouble. Winston is a bad citizen. Winston needs help. Big Brother is watching.

Matt Lee (center) as Winston with the cast of 1984 MET
Matt Lee (center) as Winston with the cast of 1984

Lee is a harbinger of truth. YOU MUST BE PRECISE. Lee embodies the character right at the precipice of his moral divide. There is a rebellious spirit still dwelling inside Lee’s recreation of Winston is most brutally and heinously witnessed when his body starts convulsing and his screams overwhelm the gritty chamber. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING. Lee’s recreation of Winston is— is— authentic and factual. Lee’s portrayal of Winston— Big Brother is watchinghe sends shivers up the spine. Watching him convulse and scream and undergo so torture borders on being torture for the audience because he’s so physically and vocally invested in the task. Lee performs well. Lee is a good citizen.

Tim Seltzer (left) as O'Brien with Matt Lee (seated) as Winston and the company of 1984MET
Tim Seltzer (left) as O’Brien with Matt Lee (seated) as Winston and the company of 1984

Unseen and only heard until Big Brother wishes for him to be seen, O’Brien, as live-time created by Tim Seltzer, is a pure corruption of authority. Big Brother is watching. But Seltzer’s O’Brien is terrifying, makes your skin crawl, sends nauseating waves of terror through the body, even if he’s only a disembodied voice half of the time! Big Brother is watching. But— but— Seltzer is a good Citizen. They’re all good citizens. Are you a good citizen? Will you go see 1984? Big Brother is watching. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING.

I love Big Brother.

I LOVE BIG BROTHER.

I LOVE BIG BROTHER…

Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

1984 plays through November 12, 2017 on the Main Stage of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the Historic FSK Hotel building— 31 W. Patrick street in downtown historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.


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