Also see Charles' recent review of The Fantasticks
For the initial attraction this year in its Arts Exchange Program, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago has chosen a rather audacious offering, a stage adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, written by the author himself. Even before entering the theatre, I knew that this would be a challenging experience (and even a controversial one) because I was approached by a reporter with a video camera distributing flyers that proclaimed that, like the story, the Chicago Public Library system is depriving small libraries by offering tiny standardized book and magazine collections and in some way censoring what the library's patrons could read.
First written in 1953 (a year before the McCarthy hearings in the United States) and later made into a feature-length film starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie and directed by Francois Truffant, Fahrenheit 451 is a futuristic tale about a civilization where all written word is forbidden and where firefighters are paid to burn books instead of fighting fires. The major protagonist, Fireman Guy Montag, blindly follows the orders of this totalitarian government until one day, after a chance encounter with a seventeen-year-old girl, he begins to read the books he burns and questions the life he leads.
This is indeed heavy stuff, even for the adults in the audience, much less the students who attend (one of the rationales for this Arts Exchange program). In order to do justice to Bradbury's exposé on freedom of speech, youth violence and technology ethics, the production needs a sharp focus and definite directorial decisions. Unfortunately, Steppenwolf's production fails on several points.
There are understandable challenges in a program like this where the whole production team needs to stage the play on the existing set of the main play being performed at Steppenwolf (in this case, Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. Unfortunately, The Time of Your Life takes place in a neighborhood bar and the first view upon entering the theatre is that of a huge oak bar center stage. There is no attempt to disguise the bar, and the action attempts to play around this dominant image. It just doesn't work. There are attempts to suggest the future, among them a huge machine (resembling Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet) called "The Hound" and some gimmicky apparatus such as video screens, remote controls etc. But, we're still in a bar, a situation that has always suggested conviviality, not alienation.
In the program notes, director Dado writes: "Keep in mind as you watch Fahrenheit 451 that I approached the script not as a futuristic tale, but more as an alternative present." If this concept is to evoke what Bradbury intended, then there are several glaring errors in this production. There needs to be a rigid suggestion of the effects that not reading books creates in a character, especially for the Police Chief (played with much swagger by Jeff Still) and his fellow firemen. This is not evident. Even as Montag reads the books smuggled to him in various ways, there does not seem to be any transformation in character.
John Connolly is indeed rigid and stern as Montag and is very effective as he first stumbles over the words he is trying to read from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but he does not ascend to the further levels of the character by the play's end.
What is lacking overall is a feeling of the antiseptic, sterile world that Bradbury envisioned in the novel. An attempt to glorify books as a central icon vs. the artless world the characters live in, is amateurishly suggested by painted book jackets on a piece of muslin and painted paperback books strung like Christmas tree lights that highlight Montag's realization that books do have some inherent worth.
Recognition should be given to the members of the cast, especially Maury Cooper as the old man who tries to convey to Montag the inherent wisdom contained in books. All technical designers of this production are participants in Steppenwolf's new initiative, the Early Career Designer Residency, and are used, as the program notes, "to bring a fresh energy and unique vision to Steppenwolf's more intimate spaces"> Russell Poole (set), Adam Friedland (lights), Jennifer Roberts (costumes) and Greg Silva (sound). All are to be congratulated for their efforts.
Despite mixed merits, Steppenwolf is to be commended for offering this production, especially geared to students and teachers, at a nominal price ($7.50-$10.00). As a high school teacher, I have often complained about the accessibility of productions for high school students and the exorbitant cost of theatre tickets for their cultural exposure. This production is a bargain! Steppenwolf also offers useful study materials and guides that can be discussed in the classroom before the actual viewing of the play (what would Fireman Beatty say to that!) I was impressed when one student, at the end of the production, asked me, "What is the meaning of the play's title?" When I explained to him that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns, he echoed, "Now it all makes sense!"
Fahrenheit 451, produced by Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange Program, is offered through October 25th at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois. For more information, call the box office at 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange Program's next production is World Set Free by Bryn Magnus, to be presented February 25th-March 15th, 2003.