Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Directed by Thomas Gruenewald.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...the beginning of wanting to know why."
Visionary people are genuinely rare. If they write for public consumption they tend to write what we know as "science fiction." H.G. Wells was one of these and Ray Bradbury is most certainly another.
These men write stories that predict impossible futures and yet a host of books written by both of them have been strong predictors of things to come. Wells brought us the submarine and travel in space and to the moon. Bradbury showed us a future in one work that, like George Orwell’s 1984, seemed not very likely - a world in which interactive television, small portable telephones and other media-expounders would replace the written word and books might become not merely obsolete but illegal. (Welcome to the 21st Century.)
In February, 1951 he published this novella called "The Fireman" in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, volume 1, no. 5 in which he presented a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic and critical thought through reading is outlawed. This dystopian world (the opposite of a utopian world) held such fictional promise that Bradbury rewrote it as a full novel, published in 1953. It became a Francois Truffault film in 1966 and there have been other attempts to make a new movie, but they have not come through, Instead, in 2005, Bradbury adapted his work into a stage play that had its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival before playing in a small off-Broadway festival in 2006.
Now, here it is at New Stages Performing Arts Center above the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, MA. With a cast of talented local actors, a director with vision and a marvelous control of his company and a visual sense that expands the sense of place and story Fahrenheit 451 is front and center once again, in our faces, at our groins, attacking our way of life head on.
Director Thomas Gruenewald has managed to mold a cast of actors into a unit of performance. There is a critical uniformity about their playing that is striking. As everyone, ultimately, takes on multiple characters it is essential that the automaton nature of the various firemen and municipal health workers and their spouses be cleanly played and maintained and this the cast did remarkably well. The author has defined each of them beautifully and those singular characters emerge from out the sameness of their playing style. Here are people who have been trained from birth to conform to a singular reality. And here are actors portraying that trait to perfection.
Individually, the play’s Greek Chorus of off-stage voices yield people up to the stage, they play their roles with clarity and honesty and that is really lovely to watch. Christopher Vecchia plays the leading role, Guy Montag, a Fireman with an automaton if suicidal wife. He is a man haunted by a young, free-spirit of a neighbor who taunts him into opening up a bit to her. His growing interest in this new woman reveals to us, and to himself, a humanity that the future society has breeded out of its people. Vecchia, if anything, is a bit two swift to exhibit his human traits, but on the whole his performance is clean and sharp and riveting to watch.
Even more involving is the actor who plays the Fire Captain Beatty, Andrew Joffe. Here is smarminess made appealing. His character is a loathsome individual, and yet his own prurient interest in books helps to transform his co-worker into a rebellious choirboy, smoking in the back row of the Choir. Joffe has a brilliant monologue in Act One and an even more exciting sequence of scenes at the top of Act Two. His acting is so complete here that avoid any impulse you may have to leave the theater at intermission. Joffe is so very worth watching in the second half of the play that you really don’t want to miss him.
Likewise, the second act is enriched by the presence of Jeff Kent as Professor Faber, an old man who has read and understood what he has read and who hides from his inevitable future with a passion. Kent is quietly heart-breaking in his scenes and his attempt to protect Montag from death is chilling to watch and to hear.
Captain Beatty (Andrew Joffe); photo: uncredited
Helen & Alice (Mary Therese Valleri and Gail Ryan); photo: uncredited
Of the women in the play two eventually stand out. Kristine Waterman as Montag’s wife Mildred starts out slowly exposing the inner woman by keeping her suppressed for an hour. When she finally emerges from that imposed rigid skin there is something of fire in her work. She actually gave me chills in her final scene in Act Two.
Gail Ryan is the second woman who deserves unfailing praise. As Mrs. Hudson, a lover of books whose library of over 2000 volumes is to be burned by the Firemen, Ryan is a champion of beauty and intellect and the spice of humankind and she is a flare over the city. Her work in this role is anything but routine; in fact, she is inspiring. Similarly, her third role, as Alice in a moment where interactive reality television brings about the "five minutes of fame" we hear so much about these days with "reality television" is chilling. Her outrage at Montag preventing her having what she so desperately needs, a sense of importance through temporary stardom, is brilliantly played.
Alexandra Lincoln does nicely with Clarisse, the odd girl next door. Sam Craig plays Black, another fireman very nicely, and Mary Therese Valleri does very well with her various roles.
Alex Reczkowski is perfect in his role as Aristotle.
Charles Tomlinson has given the company a flexibly rigid space in which to work and Gruenewald has directed them in, through and around it with grace, style and a plausible relationship to the set. His costumes are just right.
The media design work by Benjamin Elliott is a match for the acting in bringing about a dramatic evening that satisfies on just about all levels.
In a 1987 preface to a new edition of the book, Bradbury wrote, "Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony." How ironic, indeed, that a new stage work should appear at a time when reading and writing have been replaced by texting and the encoding that accompanies that communication.
We have a duty to perform here and now. People need to see this work, to read the book, even watch the watered down film which Bradbury wrote and others rewrote in 1966. But here and now, in our own region, there is a chance to experience, live, what could be our grandchildren’s future if we don’t take care now to prevent it. Not every visionary needs to see his dark dreams come true.
Fahrenheit 451 plays through April 17 at New Stages Performing Arts Center at the Beacon Theater, 55 North Street, Pittsfiel, MA. For tickets or information call 413-418-0999 or go to their website at www.newstageperformingarts.org.