I have to admit, the reason I wanted to see Round House Theater’s production of Fahrenheit 451 was that I was driven by curiosity. I first read Ray Bradbury’s classic novel in the 1970s, twenty-some years after its initial publication. The novel is, and was, touted as a science fiction classic. Being an avid reader – I was going through a “hard-core” sci-fi phase. At that time, the novel was still considered visionary, not only for its thought-provoking messages, but for all the nifty gadgets that had not yet been developed and realized. Sure, some of the technology had certainly been prototyped since the 1950’s but really – an ear ‘seashell’ device that you could use to hear and speak with others that wasn’t a telephone, walkie-talkie, or ham radio – get out of town!
Still a crazy devourer of books, this year I reread the novel. Similar to reading a novel by Jules Verne a hundred years or more after its release, the visionary machines and processes of Bradbury’s book-burning world do not appear as astounding. What seemed imaginative in the 1950’s, predictive in the 1970s, has long since been developed and realized in 2011. Undoubtedly, to remain a timeless novel or play (Ray Bradbury adapted his own novel into a theatrical work during the 1970s), the work must retain a good core story, “lesson”, or humanistic truth. However, I sometimes still yearn for a bit of sheer futuristic awe and magic. Anyhow, I digress. My interest to see this production was curiosity.
I was very excited to learn that the evening I would be attending would be the Round House Theatre’s opening night for the play and the start of the 2011-2012 season. Blake Robison, Round House Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director conducted a Q&A session with Sharon Ott, the Director of Fahrenheit 451, prior to the show. Sharon discussed how she had spent 2 years envisioning, collaborating with media experts (from the Savannah College of Art and Design), raising funds, and launching this production. Her idea was to incorporate contemporary media into the work, while staying true to the dialogue in Bradbury’s adaptation. She felt it was imperative that current technological additions of animation, interactive media, and simulated virtual environments would need to “support the narrative” and not become distracting “visual noise”. It was felt that the addition of these elements would make the overall story more contemporary and relevant to this generation of theater audiences.
If you are not familiar with Fahrenheit 451, the basic premise is that society has become more censored. Firemen are now deployed to set books on fire and a part of their job is to search and locate secretive book stashes. Along with the destruction of literature, free thought and open discussion has either been lost or restricted. Most people are constantly entertained into a state where personal creativity, inquisitiveness, and autonomy is virtually lost. Where individuals are still free thinkers or intellectuals, they are treated as outcasts.
The main character is Montag (David Bonham). The story follows his metamorphosis from an indifferent and obedient fireman to a discontented member of society. Several actions contribute to his change, the chance encounter with the serene and “peculiar” Clarisse (Aurora Heimbach), the nearly dreamlike quality of an overdose by his wife Mildred (Liz Mamana), and the remarkable tenacity of a senior who’d rather die by burning with her stash of books than save her own life. As the events that perplex and push Montag to question societal constraints unfold, Montag’s mentor/nemesis, fire chief Beatty (Jefferson A. Russell), adds his mental jousts and intellectual puzzles to the fray.
Getting back to my curiosity, a weak production of Fahrenheit 451 could easily be very dated, stark, boring and “preachy,” albeit no less relevant and meaningful. However, I was overjoyed to find awe and magic at Round House Theatre! Certainly the media elements were incredible and perfectly balanced for the show. Not only did they update the production, but as intended they supported and enhanced the experience. The talents of Production Designer Hal Tine, Lighting Designer Ruth Hutson, and Music and Sound Designer Steve Legrand refreshed the work by adding settings that included contemporary media elements, modern industrial structures, futuristic lighting and sounds, and colorful retro/kitschy elements for Mildred and her home.
The more seasoned cast members really shined on this opening night. Jefferson A. Russell was outstanding! Russell approached this production like a veteran athlete. He was very versatile, physical, and charismatic. During one of his soliloquy’s regarding minorities…he resembled a deft boxer spitting various national dialects physicality like the rapid jabs of a boxer. Mesmerizing. I also enjoyed Jean Harrison as the doomed Mrs. Hudson. Her character was believable and astounding as one who would lay down her life for her books. Additionally Professor Farber (John LesCault) held your attention as the knowledgeable but cowardly man who introduces Montag to literature. Liz Mamana was able to skirt the fine line of not allowing Mildred to become a cartoon character completely – by demonstrating a smidgen of soul and personality. A difficult task. The less experienced actors were delightful, but a few more nights under their belt would allow the portrayals to mature. Like a pair of new shoes – they need to work their characters a bit to find the perfect fit.
Don’t miss this stunning production!