Friday, July 9, 2010

Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at Which Paper Gets Really, Really Hot

Bad Example Productions Debuts With Bradbury’s Stage Adaptation of His Most Acclaimed Work

By Russ Bickerstaff
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New theatre company Bad Example Productions opened its first show last night—Ray Bradbury’s Faherneheit 451 at the Alchemist Theatre. A modest crowd turned out for the second dystopian drama to open at the Alchemist this summer.

Stuffy Background Criticism

In 1951, author Ray Bradbury wrote a short story set in a world where books were routinely rounded-up and burned by government officials known as “firemen.” Books were burned for the good of a society that was permissive enough to allow them to be burned. The short story was turned into a short novel in 1953, which has gained acceptance as one of the greatest literary works of the 1950’s and one of the first science fiction novels to gain widespread critical academic acceptance.

The book has often been seen as a criticism of government censorship and the dangers of a totalitarian society, which is kind of missing the point. It’s clearly stated in the text in numerous ways that society as a whole has grown apart from books. The government is only doing the will of the will of the majority of society. Bradbury himself has gone on record as saying that the book was actually about how television destroys interest in reading literature . . . and interest in critical thought along with it.

In light of modern technology and the bewildering complexity of contemporary mass culture, it’s difficult not to see the source material as anything other than a quaint, old relic from the dawn of modern mass media. Bradbury was pretty progressive leveling TV’s effect on mass culture in the early 1950’s when it was first becoming established, but he wasn’t visionary enough to see its effect in the context of the rest of the mass media that would be established . . . a decade after Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, Marshall McLuhann predicted the “global village,” of a globally-connected information society. Twenty-three years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, the first word processing computer program was developed. The influence of word processing on our understanding of the written word cannot be overestimated. More has been written since the invention of word processing than had been written over the course of the rest of human history combined. The information-rich world we’re floating around in demands a basic level of savvy that Bradbury didn’t see coming. His nightmare vision of a culture intellectually and emotionally crippled would’ve only been possible in a vacuum without internet and other forms of interactive media that permeate the modern world.

Fahrenheit 451 is also a love letter to narrative fiction itself. I’m watching characters passionately speaking through actors onstage about the books they love—classics quoted in the script. And as I’m watching this, I’ve got quite a few of those classics along with 30 other novels in a wallet-sized PDA in my left front pocket. A recent iPad commercial casually boasted being able to carry around more books than you could read in a lifetime. Book burning has always been a symbolic, theatrical event. Book burning in the modern world would be almost completely meaningless. When Fahrenheit 451 was published, a book was a very solid, very concrete thing . . . the type of thing that could be taken away from us. In the modern world, this would be very difficult to do. Classics that have fallen into public domain are available for free online. It’s very difficult to imagine a world where society would turn its back on books and critical thinking. In the modern information-based culture, one turns one’s back on books at one’s own risk.In an information-rich environment, those who cannot think critically become marginalized capital. 

The world has changed a lot in the half-century since Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451. It’s a very interesting, very compelling story, but it really needs to be enjoyed in the context of the world Bradbury’s rendering. Certain universals about human understanding, passion and compassion keep Fahrenheit 451 relevant, but his more specific concern about what television and pre-packaged media are doing to society comes across a little silly in the context of the modern world.

The Play

Bad Example plays Fahrenheit 451 on a mostly blank stage. There are a few chairs and a table. The drama plays out entirely between actors, costuming and a few books. Jeremy Eineichner plays Guy Montag—a professional “firefighter” who burns books for the common good. A few key events shake Montag’s faith in what he’s doing. Eineichner puts together a pretty solid dramatic performance in the role. At the beginning of the play, he’s passionately extolling the virtues of fire. At the end he’s completely disenfranchised and passionate about the books he’s been  burning all these years. It’s a big journey—Eineichner could’ve tried to reach for more intensity in his performance and ended-up playing it way over the top. Eineichner does a really good job of tempering the emotion to make it feel more natural.

Montag’s co-workers help to fill-in some of the details about the world the story rests in. We only get three others on-set: Black (Desiree Gibson,) Holden (Warren Anderson) and Beatty (Robert Golden,) but the very lived-in costuming (a very practical-looking fireman’s uniform) and the overall feel of the group scenes between them works quite well in establishing the work culture of the “firemen.”

 Much of the rest of the world of the story is brought-in through Montag’s interactions with his wife Mildred (Joanna Thomas.) Thomas has something of a sullen restlessness in the role of Montag’s wife. She’s often seen watching television . . . Director David Kaye has elected to have actors facing the fourth wall every time they’re watching a TV screen or a monitor, which is remarkably simple and startlingly effective. When these characters are watching a glowing screen, they’re looking out in to the ether beyond the audience . . . it’s a nice aesthetic effect.

The big difficulty with the show seems to be the script, which is far too reliant on monologues to carry much of the action. Interaction between characters feels a bit stiff and perfunctory, which has only a small bit to do with anything actually happing onstage in this production. Bradbury has characters interacting in sympathetic monologues. It doesn’t feel as natural as it should, which would be fine if it felt more haunting or poetic.

One of the single best performances in the production is that of Grace Liebenstein in the role of Clarisse—a quirky intellectual girl who lives next door to the Montags. Liebenstein has a sparkling stage presence that makes her limited time onstage quite memorable. Liebenstein’s rapport with Eineichner onstage make for some of the more charming moments in the production. We feel Montag’s fondness for her in those fleeting moments she’s onstage. Liebenstien’s performance gives Clarice’s disappearance midway into the play quite a bit of impact.

Bad Example has put together a very solid production. The script may feel stiff in places, but director David Kaye delivers it with more than enough impact to make this is an entertaining drama that’s well worth the price of admission.

Bad Example’s production of Fahrenheit 451 runs through July 24th at the Alchemist Theatre. Bad Example’s next production will be a staging of Elise Thoron’s Prozac and the Platypus. 

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