Prime Stage Theatre Company has committed its resources and energy to a major project, seeking to evoke drama and provoke thought in Ray Bradbury’s 1988 re-working of his 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury did not make it easy; permutations and ideas wander all over the territory inhabited by sketchily-developed characters. Director Justin Fortunato does well in keeping the action moving and making several disturbing moments vivid, getting solid, convincing performances from his cast. They capably articulate well-verbalized ideas but stay stuck with simplistic, sometimes naïve dialogue. Fortunato might have made some better choices to clarify the story and the nature of Bradbury’s future society while more clearly illuminating hopeful moments.
Bradbury’s major premise continues along the trail blazed by George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where regimes suppress dissent. Bradbury takes up the theme of book-burning and, in so doing, touches on the pages of history that go as far back as papyrus; Egyptian priests set the precedent eradicating anything that contradicted the ruling class’s versions of truth.
In this instance, a modern society, well-furnished with intricate technology, has become a place where people are kept in the dark by firemen whose flames have demolished any written thing which could spark and illuminate thought. Moreover they deal harshly with citizens who cling to books. Montag, at first, is one such fireman but his underpinnings are dislodged during encounters with people whose behavior might threaten the rules. One person is young Clarisse whose grandfather, Faber, has been living in perilous ways.
Montag discovers what it means to read literature instead of poring over sports statistics. His boss, Fire Chief Beatty, dangerously knowing a great deal about books and what they contain, sees where Montag is heading and tries to steer him along the straight and narrow path.
The major themes here are worth exploring and Bradbury has many trenchant things to say about how modern life could evolve, foreseeing developments looming on the horizon. Some of what he feared has indeed come to pass. A remarkable first-act peroration by Beatty, superbly interpreted by Monteze Freeland, deals with where we may have been going and how those trends could permute into eventually barren existence. Bradbury also makes eloquent use of famous writing by Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold and others.
Yet the play most looks like a vehicle for what Bradbury wants to say and, by turning that into a stage work, he has tried to create a swiftly compelling plot which doesn’t have enough depth while also calling for some potentially difficult visual effects. Although Fortunato’s imaginative opening tableau disturbingly makes firemen look menacing, he has a problem representing a new Fire Department invention, a terrifying automated hound which can sniff out heretical pages and maul the person who keeps them. The image and the concept do not become clear. Moreover Fortunato’s choice of a deliberately cluttered, fragment-filled stage designed by John Michael Bohach works against the idea that this time and place are empty and sterile. Fortunato has also cut essential dialogue from the final moments where, attempting to represent hope for the future, characters speak lines from books. In a truncated scene, the cast confusingly seems to be doubling for such characters for no evident reason.
Justin Patrick Mohr succeeds in making Montag innocent and vulnerable while also conveying his developing strengths. As Chief Beatty Monteze Freeland has a compelling presence and delivers his best speeches with urgent truth. But I found Ken Lutz’s version of Faber full of overdone quirkiness, out of sync with more simple and direct playing by cast members.
Although TV sound-bites slice and dice meaning as Bradbury observed and TV has become an opiate of the people, it has not shoved literature into the dustbin of history as he foresaw. That, he said, was the prime impetus for his original novel. People do still read books in a complex, intricate world where unfettered, media-generated ideas and opinions come at us from all directions.
Despite Bradbury's limited intention, he has touched on many significant themes, saying much to merit your attention and thought. A differently conceived production might be able to overcome some of the problems in what he wrote, but such a daunting task remains a major challenge.
I wonder what Bradbury thought of how some people have given up paper, printers ink and binding to look at words on Kindle.
Fahrenheit 451 continues through November 11th at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square E, North Side. Tickets: 1-800/718-4253 or primestage.showclix.com and www.primestage.com