Fahrenheit 451 | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn


Fahrenheit 451

This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, April 4, 2006.

Guy Montag (Ken King) is a fireman in a large American city, and has been for more than ten years. Every night he and his company race, sirens blaring, to sites of danger and alarm. But when they unreel the hoses from their trucks, it’s not to deliver life-saving water but to soak troves of forbidden books with kerosene. These fireman serve the public interest by extinguishing illegal libraries with flame.

Montag loves fire and has never questioned the rightness of the mission that sends him and his colleagues into the streets armed with flamethrowers every night. But three things happen to start him down the path of doubt. First, he meets a young woman named Clarisse (Teal Wicks) who tells him of a time when houses were flammable, and the job of firemen was to put fires out, not start them. Yes, Clarisse admits she’s crazy, and that something must be very wrong with her to make her ask “Why?” when the only acceptable question is “How?” But Montag finds himself drawn to her carefree spirit and startling happiness nonetheless.

Next, Montag returns home from a hard night of firestarting to find that his wife Mildred (Gracy Kaye) has overdosed once again on the pills the government supplies to keep its citizens brainfogged and docile. A routine visit from paramedics who act more like technicians than healers sets Mildred to rights again, but Montag knows it will only be a matter of time before the hollowness of the entertainment on the wall screens and the rumors of war in the world outside drive her back to the brink of accidental suicide.

Finally, on an urgent call to a secret cache of more than a thousand books, Montag encounters Mrs. Hudson (Kristen Rozanski), a woman who refuses to stand aside and let the firemen do their work unimpeded. In fact, with the flick of a match she beats them to the punch, preferring to immolate herself along with her library than go on living without it.

Sick at heart and desperate to understand what could drive a person to such an extreme, Montag does the unthinkable: he rescues a book from the flames and takes it home. And that simple act will change his life.

Sound and fury signifying plenty

I enjoyed this play and was moved by it, but my reaction was probably the mildest of the party of four I attended with. My companions would probably have given it an A- or better. Seats are very limited, so get your tickets while there’s still time.

Hardly an American in the last forty years has graduated high school without some exposure to Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. In 1979, over a quarter of a century after its original publication, Bradbury adapted his novel for the stage. Now, more than another quarter century later, the Godlight Theater Company takes up the challenge of making that familiar work seem fresh to New York audiences in a new millennium. Though not entirely successful, director Joe Tantalo’s production makes a moving if noisy case that Bradbury’s masterwork is more relevant today than ever.

Staged in the round in a tiny, 60-seat theater, the production skillfully deploys light, sound, and only the most basic of props to evoke a claustrophobic nighttime world of raging infernos, cyborg bloodhounds, in-ear communications links, and wall-sized video screens that never shut up. The thunderous sound, in fact, is sometimes overwhelming, especially in scenes where invisible fighter jets on patrol swoop low over the cityscape. The roar of the engines literally shakes the theater as the jets seem to pass only yards overhead—an effect that no doubt deliberately recalls the real-life fighters that kept watch over New York City in the weeks after 9/11.

In fact the firemen themselves, dressed in their iconic black flame-retardant coats with the reflective yellow strips, bring images of 9/11 to mind, but they’re images the production subverts in its opening scene, turning these heroic figures into agents of destruction and repression. The distant war that keeps the citizenry in a state of low-grade fear and the interactive video programming that lulls it into complacency by night also strike notes of eerie concordance with 21st century reality.

But Fahrenheit 451 has more up its asbestos-clad sleeve than just timely political fable-mongering. It’s really a love song to books, not as perishable possessions but as containers and transmitters for the greatest and grandest ideas ever conceived by mankind. The most poetic and riveting scenes in the production are those in which the characters orate on, argue over, and ultimately play out the ways in which ideas both good and bad spread like viruses, and that as long as there’s a Clarisse willing to play the Typhoid Mary of informational revolution, this beneficial infection will survive to inspire and inflame a new generation.

The paradox of the production is the way these talk-heavy scenes are played with such intense heat yet fail to sound like real human speech arising spontaneously from a self-aware character. Even Gregory Konow as Fire Chief Beatty, who delivers the most tongue-twisting bravura passage in the play, doesn’t put across the meaning behind his speech so much as the chilling emotion of it. The audience gets the powerful message, but strangely for a show about books, the argument is more about overwhelming the heart than appealing to the head.

Still, it’s the love of learning that inspires such sacrifice among the characters of Fahrenheit 451, not plain intellectualism, so maybe that approach isn’t so wrong after all.  

Fahrenheit 451
By Ray Bradbury, adapted from his novel
Directed by Joe Tantalo
Set and lighting design by Maruti Evans
Original music and sound design by Andrew Recinos
59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022
March 15th - April 23rd
Tickets: $25.00
(212) 279-4200

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