The Fresno County Library has a good thing going with its annual Big Read program. This year’s featured book is Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and the library arranged to mount the theatrical version of the novel. (It continues 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 28 at the Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave. Tickets are free and are available at area libraries.)
Though the theater project might sound like it could be a rather dry academic exercise, I was pleasantly pleased with the outcome. The play, a joint production by California Public Theater and Woodward Shakespeare Festival, is pretty good. Bradbury himself adapted the script in the 1970s, and while it’s obvious that the theatrical version was never destined to be a standalone classic, it does retain at least some of the thoughtful zing of the novel.
Director S. Eric Day, working on a modest scale, finds some compelling theatrical moments in the material. Using little more than four movable screens and a few pieces of furniture, he creates a menacing, totalitarian near-future world in which books are banned. “Firemen” no longer put out fires; instead they respond to reports of illicit books, which they then burn.
All this seems almost unbearably quaint in today’s Internet-savvy world, of course — or does it? One of the things that struck me about this production is its relevance. In Bradbury’s near-future world, the masses are kept docile on a steady diet of government-approved TV-style programming. (One of the entertainments, a sort of personalized soap-opera tailored to individual viewers, seems on one level inherently plausible in today’s interactive-crazy world, and on another is creepily close to the current craze for “reality” TV.)
Bradbury seems to be telling us that the greater our reliance on technology, the easier it can be to manipulate the content delivered by that technology. Books, which are stubbornly low-tech, are hard to control once they’ve been disseminated, unlike a Web page or TV show, say.
I was also tickled by Bradbury’s slam at spectator sports, which are used to keep the public occupied. All that endless talk about “scores” uses up energy that could be used for real thinking: “Let’s not let any oxygen get to the mind.” (To be fair, Bradbury could just as well have been talking about the obsession with entertainment celebrities as well.)
Day’s staging gets a big boost from Izzy Einsidler’s first-rate lighting design, a mix of the expected (flashing sirens) and innovative (using the movable screens to highlight ominous silhouettes). The staging (set design is by Gary V. Bufkin) and lighting design in this show are textbook examples of how a production team can achieve strong theatrical moments even with a limited budget. Deborah Bolen’s costume design is also a plus, looking a touch futuristic without being cheesy. Steve Allen’s sound design was a little timid, volume-wise, in the first half of the show, but the interesting sound bites add another dimension.
The acting was a little uneven at the performance I saw, but there were some good performances. Matt Otstot, in the lead role of Montag, the fireman who begins the question the system, shows more emotional range and impact than I’ve seen from him in the past — a promising step forward for him. Luis Ramentas, as the enigmatic captain, finds the bluster in his role (though his big, relevatory monologue could use a little more confidence and preparation). I was impressed with Dorian Follansbee as Clarisse, the odd next-door-neighbor. She brings a gentle but growly backbone to her character — setting the stage for the turmoil to come.