Dystopia at the Gamm

Orwell's vision of a totalitarian future comes to life on stage


I am an unabashed fan of the Gamm Theatre. Their particular brand of provocative, boundary pushing, often weighty drama (and comedy) seems neatly tailored for my typically off-kilter sensibilities. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I basically cut my theater-going teeth at the Gamm, beginning back at its former Jewelry District home, that my notion of what live theater should be is so thoroughly connected to what they do, but at this point I pretty much leave a theater disappointed unless my experience could accurately be described as harrowing.

With that in mind I went to see the Gamm’s current production of 1984. British playwright Nick Lane’s adaptation of George Orwell’s monumental 1949 novel makes its US debut at the Pawtucket theater. It condenses one of the most influential narratives of the last century into two acts that are imaginatively staged with a sparse set, multimedia effects and only five actors. To call it bleak would be an understatement. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow the Gamm managed to make this season’s earlier production of the emotionally wrenching Danish tragedy Festen seem like a light-hearted farce by comparison.

The first thing worth noting is that from a technical standpoint, it is one of the most inventive and resourceful productions the Gamm has done. The limited space on stage is maximized and managed well. The sound and lighting immerse the audience in the grim dystopia of Orwell’s novel. And the multimedia effects, particularly the use of Big Brother’s infamous “telescreens”, is both an effective narrative technique and impressive feat of technical prowess.

The cast, too, manages to make the most of every moment on stage. With just three men and two women, they incorporate probably two dozen characters and narrators into the story. Of the five cast members, only Gamm veteran Jim O’Brien plays one role, that of protagonist Winston Smith. The remaining four cycle in and out of parts both large and small, enabled by the fact that the entire cast wears matching uniforms, the dull blue jumpsuits worn by all workers in the dystopian superstate of Oceania.

The narrative is, of course, gripping. Lane’s adaptation manages to distill down the essential elements of the book without too much sprawl (though the second act does admittedly feel a bit long), and the mood of fear, paranoia and dread is immersive. 1984 is certainly not for everyone – and there were many shell-shocked looks among the audience members as they filed out at the end – nor is it a light and easy night at the theater, but, as the Gamm is apt to do with nearly every production, it practically demands discussion. It’s the sort of play that lingers with you afterwards, provoking thought and debate. It touches nerves. In short, it’s my kind of theater.