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DramaWatch: Orwell’s doubleplusgood oldthink

Portland's theater week: the dystopia of "1984," Fake Radio recreating the '40s, Shakespeare in the house.


Here in mid-September, school is back in session, so that means that somewhere some teen is reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lots of teens in lots of places, more than likely. As did so many of us, I read George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel in high school and found it both fascinating and (even though the titular time-frame was yet a few years away then) prescient. 

But, having not revisited the book in more than 40 years, I do not remember the appendix.

“The Principles of Newspeak,” a linguistic essay following the familiar story, serves a central role in 1984, the 2013 stage adaptation that opens Artists Repertory Theatre’s season. Playwrights  Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan use the appendix, which uses the past tense in discussing the totalitarian government and its use of ideologically coercive language, as the basis of a framing device for the stage, presenting a group of people discussing the story from an historical remove. 

“Far from being a shallow postmodern device,” Variety wrote about a 2014 production at London’s Almeida Theater, “this adds a further layer of creepiness to the tale, allowing us to see the nightmare as something not in the future but in the near past.”

Fight the power. Winston Smith (Chris Harder) goes against government in Artists Rep’s stage version of George Orwell’s 1984.

The year 1984 is by now roughly equidistant from the time the novel was published and our present moment. Time and dates aren’t all that essential to Orwell’s social critique, which, like all literary dystopias, is as much descriptive as speculative. Which is another way of underlining the depressingly enduring relevance of the tale. 

“Orwell envisaged that not only would we all have a TV, but we’d have cameras in our rooms and the TVs would be able to see us back,” Macmillan said in an interview a few years ago with Michael Billington of The Guardian. “He also thought that we would be reporting on ourselves, which is now obviously very true with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the fact that our phones now know exactly where we are and some are even being used to record our heart rate.

“We are all completely self-reporting, which prompted us to switch round the words ‘Big Brother is watching you’ into ‘Big Brother is you watching’, which we’ve incorporated into our script.”

Last week’s DramaWatch erroneously listed Artists Rep’s production among opening shows; the company’s longer slate of previews continues to confuse. Mea culpa. In any case, Friday’s actual opening night — at Imago Theatre because of the wholesale renovations underway at Artists Rep’s downtown home — remains promising, with an exciting cast (led by Chris Harder, Claire Rigsby, Allen Nause and Michael Mendelson) directed by Damaso Rodriguez.


Among the many subgenres of theatrical production, one of the most peculiar, in some senses, is the staged radio-show facsimile. Why bother creating a visual, spatial, physicalized rendition of something originally conceived as aural and disembodied? Well, perhaps because of the central place in American entertainment and culture that radio held for many years. What’s being staged isn’t radio, it’s the tropes and trappings and nostalgic mythos of radio from a certain age (the 1930s and ‘40s, before television stole radio’s lunch).

The Los Angeles company Fake Radio has been making a specialty of presenting old radio scripts (with little bits of improvisation sprinkled here and there) for more than a decade, with a regular cast of actors, voice-over artists and comedians, plus occasional high-profile guest stars (Fred Willard, Dave Foley, Laraine Newman, John Larroquette…). And, according to a press release, these folks have been performing in Portland semi-regularly since 2016. Well, blow me over with a transistor — I never knew! 

Lynne Stewart guest stars with Fake Radio for a recreation of The Maltese Falcon.

In any case,  Lux Radio Theater’s hit 1943 broadcast of The Maltese Falcon gets the Fake Radio treatment, Saturday night at the Old Church downtown and Sunday at the Vault in Hillsboro. Lynne Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” joins as special guest for what offers, in the words of the LA Weekly, “an uncanny sense of a time warp gone horribly right.” 

Generally speaking, a house full of drama is not what you want. But in a city where not just housing space but performing space keeps becoming harder to find, sofas and soliloquies seem to match well. Two small, young Portland companies are opening Shakespeare plays staged — if that’s the right term here — in private homes. Speculative Drama (love that name, by the way) which has been building a reputation for its “immersive” presentations, offers what it calls the “Lake House” Hamlet. A “contemporary lens” on how tragedy can flow from “one person’s inability to make adult choices” sounds like something I should see.
Meanwhile, Enso Theatre Ensemble serves up Much Ado, a “feminist supercut/adaptation” of Much Ado About Nothing, promising “all the drama of a house party…in an actual house.” 

Presented by Yale Union as part of PICA’s Time Based Art festival, The Dope Elf is described as “a series of three unique performances staged within a nomadic installation/film set and simultaneously livestreamed.” OK, cool. The PICA website says that the piece was “(c)ommissioned by LA-based playwright Asher Hartman,” but since Hartman wrote the play, what’s rather more likely is that it was commissioned from him by Yale Union. But anyway… Further description on the site includes such terms as “meta-play,” “slippery points-of-view,” “evading fixed identity,” “unboundedness” and so on, all of which makes me a little leery. But don’t let my aesthetic conservatism keep you from a good time. 

Readers Theatre Repertory continues its long run at the Blackfish Gallery, opening a new season this weekend with a program dubbed Love’s Funny That Way: Five best from “The Best American Short Plays.” If that already sounds like a lot of “best,” the selections — Losing Sight, by Kevin D. Ferguson, Man, Kind, by Don X. Nguyen, There’s No Here Here, by Craig Pospisil, Vertical Constellation with Bomb, by Gwyndion Suilebhan, and Petra by John Yarbrough — will be directed by DramaWatch favorite Mary McDonald-Lewis.

The Portland Ballet fall enrollment 2022

The flattened stage

I can’t speak for you, but I’d much rather that when I was a kid, the Saturday morning fare, instead of the likes of that craptastic Scooby-Doo, had been this:

The best line I read this week

“To be or not to be? There is no other subject about which so much has been written and about which so little has been said.”

— from “The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.


Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.