Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Wednesday, September 27

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

« Wim Wenders Is on the Road Again at the Gene Siskel Film Center Cinespace & Stage 18: Growing Chicago's Film Industry & North Lawndale's Economy »

Theater Tue Oct 27 2015

Steppenwolf's 1984 Recreates Dystopian World of the Past...and the Present

Steppenwolf 1984
Photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux Inc.


This slogan of the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) in George Orwell's novel, 1984, sums up the themes of Newspeak, doublethink, censorship and repression that permeate his novel. Steppenwolf for Young Adults recreates this dystopian era and gives it a strong contemporary twist in its new staging of Orwell's 1949 novel. It's a provocative play and brought out some thoughtful questions from high-school-age audience members at the Saturday afternoon opening.

Andrew White's careful adaptation of 1984, directed by Hallie Gordon, brings the story to life in the person of Winston (Adam Poss), who secretly hates Big Brother and the IngSoc party, misses chocolate and fears rats. He lives in Oceania, one of the world's three great powers, and works for Minitrue, an organization dedicated to erasing the past and discouraging memories. Winston changes past news reports to match new government edicts and replaces images of those declared unpersons. When he and Julia (Atra Asdou) meet and fall in love, their actions break all the rules of the party, which has obliterated love, warmth, pleasure and intimacy from the world.

Winston does have memories, however, despite the party's wishes; he remembers that he was a child once and had a family. When he and Julia find a secret place to meet, she brings delights such as chocolate and real coffee that remind him of the past. Unfortunately, their precious times away from a telescreen end too soon. Winston is imprisoned by IngSoc, where he is tortured into giving up his memories and admitting that 2+2 might equal 5.

Steppenwolf's 90-minute production is a crisp and chilling reminder that we are all under constant surveillance, even if we don't have a telescreen in every room monitoring our thoughts and actions. And although no one we know of is currently creating a dictionary of Newspeak, every day some term becomes politically incorrect and subject to hate-tweets.

Gordon's directing is sharp and compelling for this rather complex and emotional story. Her cast is capable from beginning to end, with particularly strong performances from Poss as Winston, Elizabeth Birnkrant as Syme, the Newspeak expert, and Lance Baker as O'Brien, the government functionary/chameleon. The face of Big Brother on the screen throughout the production is that of Robert Breuler, veteran Steppenwolf ensemble member.

Orwell's book has been a frequent class assignment for generations. It's a challenge for directors and designers to create a visual concept for a story that we have all read and visualized in our own way. Collette Pollard's scenic design combined with Joseph A. Burke's projections, Joel Moorman's photography and Andrew Rovner's sound design and original music turn a simple staging into a masterful blend of sight and sound. The three walls are pocked with drawers, pullout shelves and a Murphy bed. Film projections are used to change the scene of the action from a bureaucratic office to a moving train to a "prole" neighborhood where Winston prowls in an old shop.

Two life-sized cubes cut into the wall with the omnipresent telescreens serve as a claustrophobic home for Winston and occasionally for young Winston (Matthew Abraham). The wall changes from a single massive screen to a grid projecting government newscasts, messages and war reports. Projections create the "exerthenics" instructor who summons the "twenties and thirties" to their workouts each morning, and the Two Minutes Hate at regular intervals. The Hate is a terrifying moment in which all join in screaming and rage at the screen showing the enemy leader, Goldstein.

Steppenwolf 1984Orwell wrote the book ostensibly as a warning of what was to come, but he was also warning his contemporaries that the post-World War II world was in danger of turning into a totalitarian society, threatened by Stalinism and fascism. The rise of McCarthyism in the US a few years later confirmed his predictions. Today the constant surveillance and persistent wars portrayed in 1984 give the story a new currency in this era of the NSA and unending Middle East conflicts. Leaks of NSA documents have told us that pretty much any phone call, email message or text that we send might be intercepted.

Orwell's 1984, its vocabulary and themes have been ubiquitous in popular culture, as is the term "Orwellian." The novel has been recreated for film, television, radio and opera. The excellent 1984 film version, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, depicts a decayed and trash-filled city in washed-out tones of gray with only an occasional touch of color. That film, directed by Michael Radford, was critically acclaimed and received a British Film Award. (The Steppenwolf adaptation closely follows the plotline of that film.) Apple introduced its Macintosh computer during the 1984 Super Bowl with its iconic "1984" commercial. The commercial and the Macintosh launch are portrayed in the new Danny Boyle film, Steve Jobs. Big Brother and the Thought Police have been common themes in albums produced by artists such as David Bowie, the Eurythmics, Rage Against the Machine, Bad Religion and Radiohead.

White's 1984 script won a Jeff award for best adaptation in 2004, when Lookingglass Theatre, where he is a founding member and artistic director, staged it. The script was revised for the Steppenwolf production, according to director Gordon. Technology applications were updated and hints of climate change added. Also the young Winston character, who appears in the book and in the 1984 film, was added to the script to "add warmth and a kernel of hope."

George Orwell's 1984 continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., through Nov. 20 with four public performances each weekend at 7:30pm Friday-Saturday and 3pm Saturday-Sunday. You can buy $20 tickets online or by calling 312-335-1650 for public performances. Performances for school groups are held at 10am Tuesday-Friday. Call 312-654-5643 or email Jared Bellot at about school groups. The play is recommended for ages 14 and up.

James Brod, a senior at Guerin College Prep in River Grove, contributed to this article.

GB store
GB store

Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


An Angry White Guy
AREA Chicago
ArchitectureChicago Plus
Arts Engagement Exchange
The Art Letter
Art or Idiocy?
Art Slant Chicago
Art Talk Chicago
Bad at Sports
Bite and Smile
Brian Dickie of COT
Bridgeport International
Carrie Secrist Gallery
Chainsaw Calligraphy
Chicago Art Blog
Chicago Art Department
Chicago Art Examiner
Chicago Art Journal
Chicago Artists Resource
Chicago Art Map
Chicago Art Review
Chicago Classical Music
Chicago Comedy Examiner
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Daily Views
Chicago Film Examiner
Chicago Film Archives
Chicago Gallery News
Chicago Uncommon
Contemporary Art Space
Co-op Image Group
Co-Prosperity Sphere
Chicago Urban Art Society
Creative Control
Devening Projects
DIY Film
The Exhibition Agency
The Flatiron Project
F newsmagazine
The Gallery Crawl...
Galerie F
The Gaudy God
Happy Dog Gallery
Homeroom Chicago
I, Homunculus
Hyde Park Artcenter Blog
Joyce Owens: Artist on Art
Julius Caesar
Kasia Kay Gallery
Kavi Gupta Gallery
Rob Kozlowski
Lookingglass Theatre Blog
Lumpen Blog
Mess Hall
Neoteric Art
Not If But When
Noun and Verb
On Film
On the Make
Peanut Gallery
Peregrine Program
The Poor Choices Show
Pop Up Art Loop
The Post Family
The Recycled Film
Reversible Eye
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Roots & Culture Gallery
The Seen
Sisterman Vintage
Site of Big Shoulders
Sixty Inches From Center
Soleil's To-Do's
Sometimes Store
Stop Go Stop
Storefront Rebellion
TOC Blog
Theater for the Future
Theatre in Chicago
The Franklin
The Mission
The Theater Loop
Thomas Robertello Gallery
Time Tells Tony Wight Gallery
Uncommon Photographers
The Unscene Chicago
The Visualist
Western Exhibitions
What's Going On?
What to Wear During an Orange Alert?
You, Me, Them, Everybody
Zg Gallery

GB store



A/C on Flickr

Join the A/C Flickr Pool.

About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Nancy Bishop,
A/C staff inbox:



A/C Flickr Pool
 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15