The Mercury Theatre’s first full-length production has been a long time coming. A year ago, the fledging local company attempted to launch with a performance of The Woman in Black, but that show never came together. After hosting a modestly successful reading series last November and a one-act festival last month, the Mercury and managing director Joseph Welles finally felt prepared to unveil an original, Sept. 11-inspired adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 last week, but were thwarted when the fire marshal closed down the production’s home—the Warehouse Mall—three days prior to opening night. Welles quickly landed an alternate, albeit meager space, the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, and on Saturday finally debuted his version of Orwell’s classic to an audience of 24.
The next night, nine showed.
And on Monday, as I took my seat in the barren basement theater just five minutes before show time, I was the third person in attendance.
“I hope we have a show,” Welles greeted me. “The rule is, if the cast outnumbers the house, you send the cast home.”
Nobody said launching a theater company was easy, but Welles appears to have the chin to make it happen. Despite the unrelenting setbacks and the inherently upstream struggles associated with raising the capital and compiling the resources to make professional theater happen (the Mercury pays its staff and talent), Welles has managed to stay stubbornly homed in on his goal of bringing experimental theater—“where the subjective interpersonal dynamic is open and spatial dynamism physically and intimately connects the individual with the message”—to Missoula.
The show did in fact go on Monday night, with an eventual crowd of 18 who seemed to cautiously eye this ambitious new player in the local theater scene. There was no applause between the three acts, no gasps or laughs during the action—just a respectful, measuring stare-down from beginning to end.
What the audience saw was far from perfect, and probably short of the Mercury’s lofty self-stated goals, but it was also an effort deserving a second look. Welles’ risks outweighed his rookie mistakes, and the least his company deserves is a chance to further test its mission with a second go.
Welles’ 1984 adaptation is a zig-zag of content true to the original novel and modern-day War on Terror imagery. The protagonist is Winston Smith, a resistant pawn under Big Brother’s watchful eye. While working at the Ministry of Truth rewriting history to reflect the interests of those in power, Winston is careful not to smile, not to question authority, or otherwise commit a fatal “thought crime.” In the opening scenes, these Orwellian themes of a culture sucked dry by fear and political paranoia are cast contemporarily: A video recounts the World Trade Center attack and the Iraq War, reminding that in the midst of these ongoing struggles “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” When Winston and his colleagues at the Ministry are forced to sit through the “Two-Minute Hate”—a therapeutic video presentation of badness—we’re introduced not to Orwell’s original evildoer, revolutionary Emmanuel Goldstein, but to images of Saddam Hussein. And one of Winston’s assignments at work is to spin-doctor an account of the Abu Ghraib prison torture.
Such current events are woven into the original fabric of Orwell’s story, presented prominently in the first act and mostly abandoned again until the end of the play. Instead, the production’s middle focuses on Winston’s budding—and illegal—love of a horny radical named Julia, and Big Brother’s inevitable discovery of their affair.
What works and doesn’t work within the context of the Mercury’s adaptation is almost secondary to the effort itself. It’s in style right now to restage 1984 in the present—for example, The Actor’s Gang, lead by director Tim Robbins, launched a version last month focused entirely on torture—so it’s encouraging that a local company has the stones to offer its own timely take. There are gaps and inconsistencies—Why are Saddam and Goldstein intermittently interchanged? Why does the second act depart entirely from any contemporary connection? But ultimately such gripes are small potatoes in the Mercury’s larger stew. If anything, they prove the continuing timeliness of Orwell’s book—you don’t necessary need to be heavy-handed with an update when the original remains so compelling.
There are other problems with the production, but it’s hard to know how harshly to judge them. The venue, for instance, seems more suitable for fourth graders in tutus than for actors orating Orwell. The brown metal folding chairs, the junkyard Ministry desks, the jury-rigged rack of lights—all of it feels über-DIY and amateurish, or at least embarrassingly inadequate for a self-described “coup-de-gras [sic] of multimedia experience.” The atmosphere was nonexistent and, small house aside, made for a downright awkward viewing experience, like watching a vocalist in his or her shower rather than on a real stage. But what the hell? Let’s grade on a curve, considering Welles had all of three days to find the space and make it his own.
The result is an unfortunate wash, somewhat like the overall production—by turns intriguing and imperfect, promising and pockmarked, striving and saddled. But looking ahead, here’s what the Mercury Theatre can build on: the fact that Welles attracted undeniable talent, including Howard Kingston (Indy readers’ reigning Best Local Actor), who carries the production from start to finish as the troubled Winston; the fact that the two-hour show moves briskly and never stalls; and the fact that against daunting odds, the show came off at all, giving the Mercury finally something to learn from and improve upon. At the very least, Welles and company deserve that chance.
1984 continues through Friday, April 28, at 7:30 PM at the First United Methodist Church, 300 E. Main St. $12.