A little learning, as one character quotes to another in Fahrenheit 451, is a dangerous thing. So dangerous that no one should be learning at all – at least in the world of the 1953 Ray Bradbury book, adapted for the stage also by Bradbury (in the 1970s) and playing at the Lord Leebrick Theatre through March 24.
In the way of dystopian futures – though perhaps they all seem that way because Bradbury’s story influenced so many later writers – the world of Fahrenheit 451 is circumscribed, narrow, stifling and fairly violent. That violence and oppression come in the form of continuous government monitoring via wired, artificial-intelligence houses that can report whether their inhabitants are sleeping, eating, laughing or enjoying the forbidden – that is, reading books.
The firemen in Fahrenheit 451 don’t put out fires. All news houses are fireproof, so they’re not needed there. Instead, they make fires to burn books and burn knowledge. In Steen V. Mitchell’s clever set (a set whose generous size makes it clear how much the Leebrick needs to get into its new, larger space on Broadway), each house and building has a direct line to an incinerator, and that’s where books go.
Sorry if this is review – probably you know this already; most people seem to have read the book in junior high or high school, at a time when young people really feel the injustices of others controlling their lives and are ready to believe in a better, different world out there beyond the confines of the adults’ damned rules. That’s a good time to read dystopian novels about unfair, capricious authorities; Bradbury’s genius was to make those terrible authoritarian figures into a kind of rebellious teenage hater-of-books state, wherein videos are superb and books are outlawed. I never read it, but I’ve got my chance this year as Eugene and Springfield participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ many-locality Big Read program – the Eugene Public Library had 100 free copies of the book, which is also pretty inexpensive at any local bookstore.
Back to the play. It’s long, y’all. But somehow (perhaps because Mary at the Leebrick told me the first act was an hour and 10 minutes, and I gulped half a cup of coffee before the play began) I didn’t find the first act boring or tendentious, though it’s not exactly subtle. Part of this is because I usually enjoy watching Cameron Carlisle act, and he’s on stage about 99 percent of the time as fireman Guy Montag. Montag’s not quite sure that he likes his job. Then there is Montag’s muse/ not quite seductress (as I said, Fahrenheit 451 is a little … heavy-handed) Clarisse (Arun Storrs), who feeds him sips of information and ideas that make his job a lot harder to do. And one of the absolute rewards of this production is watching Stanley R. Coleman, who plays fire chief Beatty with a menace and control that keep the wordy script going. I want to see Coleman a lot more. His playing of the cleverly revealed secrets of the fire chief – the war of quotations, especially – sustained the less interesting second act until he left the stage.
Montag looks sickly and withdrawn the entire play; that’s one part of the script, but still, Carlisle could play Montag with a little more vigor as he realizes that his life means nothing, that he’s been propping up a regime that only harms people, never helps them.
Aside from the acting, the star of the play is indubitably Ryan Rusby’s media design. Where I was sitting, I could hear someone, probably stage manager Jacs Bruscato, calling cues just about all night long, and that’s understandable: There’s a video every other second, and the incorporation of LOLcats and other cute animal videos as distractions from serious thought make for a modern update on the 1970s play. (Though what were those weirdly thick tabletphones? Pretty sure iPads would have worked better.)
The part of the play that gets too long, really, is the utopian end. OK, we get it. People memorize books. Oral culture. Also a hippie woods culture with free love, just in case you were wondering. (Not to spoil it – oh, but you’ve read it, haven’t you? Or you’ve read Scott Westerfield’s Uglies or Pretties, or Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, or any of the dystopian city/utopian country novels – I think there’s a paper in here for a scholar of young adult books, just in case anyone wants that idea. Shakespeare’s Green World, continued in dystopian lit.)
In any case, if you grab some coffee either before the play or at intermission, you will probably enjoy this DOOM WARNING play even if you wonder, as I inevitably did, what happened to all of the e-books? Can’t burn those.
Tickets run about $17-$20, and you can get them (if any are left – it’s selling out fast) here.