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Displaced Artists Repertory Theatre opens season with provocative '1984,' a new adaptation directed by Damaso Rodriguez

COURTESY PHOTO: KATHLEEN KELLY - Chris Harder stars as Winston Smith in the new adaptation of George Orwell's '1984,' being staged by Artists Repertory Theatre through Oct. 6. Damaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep's artistic director, said the company wanted to start the season with something current and topical, 'that might draw audience members that don't necessarily think of themselves as regular theatergoers.'George Orwell's classic, dystopian story, "1984," has opened the Artists Repertory Theatre season — a notable play, given our contentious political times.

And, it's also a notable time for Artists Repertory Theatre, which was displaced — along with Arts Hub members — by renovation of its building at 1516 S.W. Morrison St. and the construction of an apartment complex next door.

So, ART on Tour takes the company to different venues for performances, such as Imago Theatre with "1984," and administrative offices have moved to South Waterfront.

In "1984," Chris Harder plays Winston, who doesn't know whether or not his new love interest, Julia (played by Claire Rigsby), works as a spy for the government and wants to turn him in for various transgressions. The government has its Ministry of Truth and Thought Police, as it cracks down on dissidents (i.e., normal citizens).

It stages at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sundays, through Oct. 6, at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave. Tickets: $60, $30 under 35,

The Tribune caught up with Damaso Rodriguez, director of "1984" and Artists Rep's artistic director, to query him on the company's displacement and the play:

Tribune: What has it been like being displaced from Artists Rep's home, and preparing for plays at other venues, including Imago?

Rodriguez: I find the challenge of producing and directing in different venues to be an exciting opportunity. It's fun, but the transition is stressful in that we are venturing into the unknown: We hope audiences will trust us and follow us from venue to venue, and we need to inspire new audience members and new donors to ensure that we succeed in raising the funds to build the space we envision. 

I think of this transition as designing more than a building — we're designing and securing a future for ART and the ArtsHub to thrive. We're grateful to Imago's co-artistic directors Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad for the generous way they arranged their producing calendar so that we could launch our season on schedule.

We weren't just trying to book stage time, but seeking out ways to collaborate and build partnerships with our host organizations ... and hope that we might introduce new audiences to ART.

COURTESY PHOTO - DAMASO RODRIGUEZTribune: How challenging is the season looking, given the displacement?

Rodriguez: We wanted this season to be bold and ambitious, for the productions to earn the collective effort it takes to produce the plays, and to reward our audience's efforts to follow us from venue to venue.

The season features multiple co-productions and first-time partnerships; different seating configurations, including productions in three-quarter thrust, proscenium, traverse staging (with the audience on two sides), and in a cabaret staging with the performance within and surrounding the audience; three plays feature live music; it's a mix of diverse and timely stories, relatively large casts; many of the plays require expanded creative teams including video and projection designers, puppetry, masks, choreography and stylized movement.

Despite the staging complexity and heightened theatricality, our goal, as always, is to produce provocative work that stirs audiences to feel something and then have a conversation.

Tribune: What are your thoughts on Orwell's "1984"?

Rodriguez: Working on the play led me to rediscover the novel. My memory of the book — from when I read it in school — was wrong. I had always associated it incorrectly with science fiction or fantasy because of the influence it's had on dystopian films and television, but it's much more of a social thriller, even a horror story. There's nothing in it that's unrealistic. 

Tribune: Why did Artists Rep want to do "1984" this season?

Rodriguez: We wanted to open with something that was as current and topical as the election cycle we are in, something that might draw audience members that don't necessarily think of themselves as regular theatergoers.

Then the rights became available to this new adaptation that had played Broadway in 2017 by Duncan MacMillan and Robert Icke. It's a 100-minute, incredibly intense piece of theater (there were stories of audience members fainting during the New York run). 

As a piece of pure theater, what I especially love about this version of "1984" is its inspired dramatization of the oft-overlooked "Appendix" that concludes Orwell's novel. The "Appendix" (which is footnoted in the early pages of the novel) is written as a historical document, looking back on the year 1984 from at least the year 2050. It indicates that Big Brother's totalitarian society of Oceania, 1984 — as it exists in the text of "1984" — is a piece of historical record, a thing of the past.

This notion is brought to life onstage in the dramatic form of a mysterious company that seems to be gathered to study the text of the book from some point in the future, in the same way that the Bible or Shakespeare is studied.

Meanwhile, we — an audience — are ever-present, observing the action from the seemingly safe vantage point of Portland, Oregon, 2019. The play then unfolds like a live puzzle always occurring simultaneously in multiple layers of time, with the central character of Winston Smith struggling to find his place in the unfolding series of events.

Tribune: Do you align our current world at all to Orwell's with the play, or just play it straight from the story?

Rodriguez: Orwell predicted a future that became reality — a world filled with screens that have the power to observe us, and where facts are so easily manipulated. Without changing a word of text, Orwell's story can't help but align to our current world.

Tribune: How has the cast taken to "1984"?

Rodriguez: We found ourselves wrapped up in exhilarating conversations, simultaneously talking about the book, the script, current events, forms of government, revolutions, regimes, how history itself is written and learned, our fears for the worst, and our hopes for the best.

While the story of "1984" can justifiably be called bleak, disturbing, or dystopian, the act of collectively telling and, more important, discussing the story is itself a hopeful, positive and necessary act. 

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