If you're still using a TV without a digital tuner or converter box, you're SOL starting Feb. 17, 2009. That's when the peeps over at the federal government say all full-power television broadcast stations must begin broadcasting in digital, which means your machine won't work unless it's equipped to receive the new signal. That may mean shelling out a few bucks to set things right—meanwhile, for the conspiracy theorists among us, the switch heralds the feds' latest covert coup in the invasion of our privacy.
These guys think Uncle Sam wants to use digital TV to spy on his unsuspecting nieces and nephews, which is why they'd like 1984, the current entry at Chula Vista's OnStage Playhouse. And while I'm nowhere near a conspiracy theorist, I enjoyed as many things about this show as I found fault with. The cast needs to pick up its ponderous pace in several multi-character exchanges, and way more could have been done technically to enhance some scenes. But at its core, this piece pretty much retains the flavor of the infamous novel and the movie that followed, the depth of your particular paranoia notwithstanding.
Y'all know the 1948 George Orwell story about Winston Smith (Rob Conway), one of the pesky holdouts against Big Brother, central authority in the futuristic society he seeks to enslave through thought control. Winston and his wife Julia (Nicole Hagemeyer) find themselves at the mercy of The Party, their firebrand tendencies soon bred out of them through such techniques as starvation, sleep deprivation and a couple old-fashioned ass-whuppins' for good measure.
Big Brother's appetite for control over society's thought, word and deed is thus sated—or else.
There's a (short) list of performers here who tend to watch themselves act—they're listening to their castmates' lines rather than responding to ideas, and that accounts for the distracting beats of silence that often permeate the exchanges. And OnStage Playhouse is hardly The Old Globe when it comes to technical resources—even so, director James M. McCullock's sound design and Christopher DeArmond's lights need a major shot of animation during the torture scenes and set-piece changes.
But there's some really good performing, too, notably by Bob Christiansen as the pontifical, duplicitous Comrade O'Brien and Neal Sullivan in the role of the lovable Mr. Charrington, last guy in the world you'd suspect as a member of the Thought Police.
Meanwhile, McCullock has an interesting passage in his program notes—he says that, amid the spread of computer-age vernacular, it “would not surprise me if over time we don't see the development of an entirely new form of communication, with a different grammar.” I think we already do see it—thing is, it's still in its formative years, retaining and dispensing with its preferences on a whim.
By comparison, Orwellian terms like “newspeak” and “double-plus good” are staples in Big Brother's world—perhaps this new form of communication McCullock mentions will similarly entrench itself in our affairs, signaling The Party's dominance over our own lives. I don't happen to believe such a day is at hand, any more than I own a TV—but this production (adapted for the stage by Robert Owens, Winton Hall Jr. and William A. Miles Jr.) takes that ever-present possibility to heart. For what it is—a theatrical take on the 20th century's signature cautionary tale—it's perfectly serviceable.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Nov. 9. 1984 runs through Nov. 29 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave. in Chula Vista. $13-$15. 619-422-7787, www.onstageplayhouse.org.