The cast of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” had a great year last year. Contracts, promotional tours, endorsements, and millions of adoring fans at their feet. What did the cast of “Jersey Shore” do to earn these accolades? They got on television. What do they do on television? They live. And the public lives off the spectacle and the promise of their own empty reality television fame.
The Round House Theatre’s production of Fahrenheit 451 needs not stretch the bounds of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece to nod at his prophecy. We are living in an age of intellectual decline. Fahrenheit has 2011 written all over it.
Fahrenheit 451, freshly directed by Sharon Ott, introduces us to Montag, a young Fireman of the future, played beautifully by David Bonham. Montag is not a fireman in the current heroic mode. He doesn’t fight fires, he sets them. He spends his days burning books, his evenings sleeping in a multi-media funhouse, and knows in his gut (or brain) that a crucial component of life is absent. Literature is banned. Society encourages people to depend on their pills. Television rules.
Montag wants more, but where does “more” come from in a culture which reviles knowledge? His Fire Chief Boss, Beatty (Jefferson A. Russell), becomes his foil and his nemesis, scoffing at his ineffectual intellectual pursuits and testing the limits of his unhappiness.
Montag’s wife Mildred (Liz Mamana) provides the comedy; the audience laughs at her obsession with television and her dependence on pills because in on our laziest days and in our darkest moments, she’s the sad clown we’re afraid of becoming. It is through her and her friends that the audience nearly shudders with the reality television parallels. Mildred et al want to feel famous. They want to see themselves on every screen. They’re among the millions of Americans shaping the newest television “storytelling” medium.
Russell’s portrayal of Beatty also lights a match against the bleak backdrop of this future. It is a pleasure to watch him, vivacious and deliciously jaded, in his verbal sparring matches with Montag, and even more of a pleasure to watch the conclusion of his journey.
Notwithstanding the play’s critique of some elements of technology, the production makes brilliant use of our modern technological advantages. One of its most compelling elements is the set design – a metallic, futuristic fantasia of the age of machines, fully equipped with enormous projection screens and a blazing, industrial soundtrack. The piece carefully incorporates this technology without making the story be about it, and perfectly creates the world in which the characters live. Production designer Hal Tiné’s work, and that of his team, is spectacular, but it does not come off as spectacle. The line is fine, and the production team walks it with total skill.
And just as effortlessly engaging as the multimedia are Dawn Testa’s costumes, which have a beautiful 60’s London feel without transporting the piece to the past (or thrusting it too far into a strange future).
Written in 1953, it didn’t take long for Fahrenheit 451 to be hailed as a vision, and a fearful prediction of trouble to come. Now, perhaps, the trouble is here. This production makes no secret that it has its eye on the media, Congress, and a public content to substitute sound bites with thought. Fox News, it all but says, I’m looking at you.
The sometimes lecture-like text, however, leads to the most disappointing aspect of the production – expertly delivered but lengthy tirades criticizing the state of the nation. The audience understands that this is no longer a cautionary tale of the future, but a heightened reflection of the present. The dialogue needn’t take such pains to drive the point home; the rest of the production is already doing its job. It is here the audience falls from the narrative and begins to feel captive to thinly-veiled opinions. This greatly weighs down the piece and slows the pace of the remainder of the show, which, though action-oriented, begins to feel laborious.
Today’s political and economic climate wears heavily on the Montags of the world. With every defaulted loan, ignored job application, and escalating price tag, generations young and old are left to wonder what is valued, what is necessary, and what is true. Disillusion is rampant. Disgust with the system always implied.
Characters like Beatty are tempted to throw up their hands, and set fire to the very things that once gave them hope. As the piece concludes, one is reminded that ignorance is not a form of self-protection, but self-destruction. Fahrenheit 451 ultimately argues that for better or worse, knowledge is beautiful, painful, and necessary. And while it argues too often and too loudly, the talent involved in Fahrenheit 451 makes the familiar journey a vivid and modern one.
By Ray Bradbury
Directed by Sharon Ott
Produced by the Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Sarah Ameigh
Running Time: Two and a half hours including one 15 minute intermission