Cincy Shakespeare's sinister production of '1984' will leave you shaken but thoughtful

Imagine the worst
Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-08 05:00:10-04

CINCINNATI -- Big Brother is watching you.

And you.

You, too.

All of us.

Even before we enter the theater for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of "1984."

Brave Berlin, the creative agency behind Lumenocity and Blink, is collaborating with Cincinnati Shakespeare on "1984" to create an immersive multimedia experience that begins on the outside of the Otto M. Budig Theater. The regional debut opens Oct. 12 and, through light projections, will transform the theater's windows facing Washington Park into watchful eyes or a cage full of rats.

Why rats?

Well, imagine the worst.

Audiences at the Broadway production of "1984" fainted and vomited at the show's depictions of torture. Cincinnati Shakespeare includes an advisory on the play's description, which says it is unsuitable for anyone younger than 14.

The poster for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's "1984."

Inside the theater, a giant screen will loom over the stage, watching, seeing and showing the audience what Big Brother knows and the characters don't yet realize. Later, projections will take over the entire set, designed with that purpose in mind, to put the audience into the tortured minds of the characters. Both the audience and the actors will have to interact with the projections.

"It's going to be this dance of working with the projected media and really making it come to life," said Brave Berlin co-founder Dan Reynolds.

To make the light projections work on the theater's windows, the glass was coated in a transparent film. The film, although not permanent, will stay on for about a year to allow Cincy Shakes to be part of Blink when it returns in October 2019.

Brave Berlin and Cincy Shakes began working on the multimedia collaboration this summer, filming actors and rats, going on location in abandoned warehouses and Bellevue Park. Reynolds said "1984" is a dream project for Brave Berlin, which also has worked with Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Opera on productions.

"This one hits all our sweet spots," Reynolds said.

A constant low hum of electrical static, the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, stark industrial design -- these, along with the projections, are the elements Cincy Shakes is using to build the dystopia first imagined by George Orwell and adapted here by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan. Even the marketing for the production -- targeted digital ads following people around the internet and mysterious notices popping up across the city -- has a sinister vibe.

But at the show's center is a love story. When he falls in love with Julia (Sara Clark), government propagandist Winston Smith (Justin McCombs) discovers a secret resistance movement within the totalitarian state of Oceania and has to grapple with everything he thought he believed.

"There is a heart to it," said Brian Isaac Phillips, who is directing the production. "A political act is not a great story. But a great story can be a political act."

Because of the story, which pits a group of free thinkers against a government that demands total psychological submission and brutally persecutes those suspected of "thoughtcrime," people of every political persuasion have used "1984" to justify their stances. Cincy Shakes' aim in using the story, Phillips said, is to start conversations about truth.

"Why do this play now?" he asked at the first read-through. "Because at the end of the day, truth matters. And how we define truth, asking who controls the narrative of our lives -- that ends up being an interesting conversation."

If you go

"1984" at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Where: Otto M. Budig Theater, 1195 Elm St.

When: Oct. 12-Nov. 3

Tickets: $14-54


Advisory: This production contains flashing lights, strobe effects, loud noises, gunshots, smoking, sexual situations and graphic depictions of violence and torture. It is not suitable for children younger than 14.