Also see Sharon's review of Three Sheets to the Wind
Great science fiction doesn't just envision a futuristic society; it uses that vision to tell a story of relevance to the present. Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 is a great science fiction novel. Set in a totalitarian society in which books are for burning, the novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of censorship. For its current production at the Falcon Theatre, Bradbury has returned to his typewriter and created a new world premiere adaptation for the stage. In doing so, he has given himself the opportunity to create a timely script that speaks to audiences of 2002. Unfortunately, he did not take full advantage of the opportunity. At times, the script does hit chords familiar to modern audiences, suggesting, for example, that censorship in the name of political correctness is one of the first steps down the road to the oppressive society of Fahrenheit 451. But there is one glaring omission in this updated script - it does not acknowledge or account for the existence of computers or the Internet.
Bradbury's script recognizes the key facts that: (1) the value of books is not in the physical books themselves but the words stored in them; and (2) small shiny disks are data storage devices. However, it never puts these facts together to consider the possibility that people might record the texts of books on computers. Why would a character risk storing hundreds of volumes on hidden shelves when the same collection could exist on a disk that fits in a pocket? And more, importantly, how could a government possibly stop the free distribution of text when we know it can't even shut down music file-swapping? Bradbury's script very clearly explains the small steps that can lead a normal society like ours down the path to prohibitions on literature, but it does not explain how such a thing can happen in a world in which we have things like Project Gutenberg.
Given the failure of Bradbury's updated script to address the technological advances of the last fifty years, this Fahrenheit 451 can't hope to grab us by the neck and shake us out of our complacency. Instead, the play can aim only for the more modest goal of reminding us of the value of books and freedom of speech. Even there, this production is rarely successful, due to its uneven performances and production values.
The cast is led by D.B. Sweeney as Montag, the "fireman" who one day questions whether the books he is charged with burning might have value. But when Sweeney's Montag has that life-shattering revelation, he states it with all the intensity of saying he just remembered he left the television on. Even later, when Montag realizes that a killing machine he created to hunt down criminal readers will soon be turned against him, Sweeney's read on the line is not a stunning moment of self-realization, or even fear, but simply a straightforward statement of fact. Montag is intended to be an everyman character, but it is very difficult for the audience to make a connection to this protagonist when Sweeney plays him with so little emotion.
In contrast, John M. Jackson as Fire Chief Beatty is more successful as a character who hides his emotions. When Beatty first discovers Montag might be experimenting with forbidden literature, he addresses Montag with a difficult-to-decipher combination of friendly supervisor and threatening law enforcer. Jackson does some solid work as a character who just might be the antagonist of the piece, while simultaneously taking us through the real meat of Bradbury's text - the description of how literate society fell. Also effective is Jay Gerber as Faber, the old professor who becomes Montag's mentor into the world of books. Gerber openly plays Faber's passion for books, and when we see him caress a volume with love and reverence, it is difficult to not feel a momentary pang for one's own favorite tome, untouched for perhaps a little too long. One of the strengths of the script is a second act scene in which these three men verbally spar with quotations - it is a well-written scene, but it fails for misdirection - sometimes two or all three of the men speak the same line simultaneously, but as they are not speaking with the clarity of a Greek chorus, the line itself is lost.
The stage is largely bare - a few bits of furniture are brought in to suggest the different scenes. Mostly, the different locales are identified by projections on three large upstage screens. The background digital projections are frequently cartoonish in their images, which is problematic. When a library is burned, we see comic-book representations of books being consumed by realistic images of fire. How much more effective this could have been if the projection was based on an actual photograph of shelves of books, rather than a brightly-painted illustration. A book being burned is a potent image; this show is surely an instance where it should not be muted. One place, however, where the show's design elements are appropriately powerful is Dan O'Connell and Suzzy London's sound design. From the crackling of the flames to the heavy-booted sound of approaching firemen, the show's sounds evoke the edge-of-your-seat fear that the rest of the production frequently lacks. It is ironic that in a show about the value of the written word, it is the non-verbal sounds that are the most effective. But they are the one element of this flawed production that consistently delivers.
Fahrenheit 451 plays at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank through November 24, 2002. For information and reservations, call (818) 955-8101, or click www.falcontheatre.com
Falcon Theatre and Ray Bradbury's Pandemonium Theatre Company present Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, directed by Charles Rome Smith. Scenic Designer Joshua Meltzer; Costume Designer Alex Jaeger; Lighting Designer Peter Strauss; Sound Designers Dan O'Connell & Suzzy London; Stage Manager Shelly Stevens; Digital Effects Art Director Nick Denney; Systems Director/Effects Artist Jerry Belich; Digital Effects Producer Wesley Horton; Publicity Philip Sokoloff; Prop Master Neal Alvarez.