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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fahrenheit 451′

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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Fahrenheit 451′"

awesome! i cannot wait to see this

Stephen says:

I, too, am looking quite forward to this.

Does one have to go to the library for tix, or can we just show up? (I know, they probably want everyone to visit a library, but I want to check).

Donald Munro says:

I’m not sure about the tickets, Stephen, but I’m assuming that if there are seats available you’ll be able to nab one at the door. Can someone with the production confirm?

Hal Bolen says:

Stephen, my understanding is that those with tickets get first seating. Those without are admitted if seats are available. Donald, thank you for your inciteful and accurate comments, especially about the timeliness of the piece and how even when updated 40 years ago, Ray Bradbury foresaw the ability to manipulate and control the masses through electronic media. Hence, the irreplacable value of written unalterable records. The most frightening line to me in the play is Faber’s comment to Montag: “Remember,the public gave up reading of its own accord.”

Marilyn says:

Great play! I plan to see it again this weekend. Deborah Bolen did a fantastic job as Mrs. Hudson. I cried during her part and at the end when the Book People at the end were reading the titles of books that we take for granted as always being available to us. S. Eric Days did a a fantastic job as director. The lighting and acting by everyone in the cast, especially Matt Otstot, were terrific. (I’m glad KSEE-TV, Channel 24 was smart enough to hire him). Overheard by the cast as everyone was leaving the play – “READ THE BOOK.”

jamie says:

what a refreshing breath of fresh air for the fresno theatre scene. after so much crap that gets praised for expensive production values rather than actual content, it is a joy to see things like this and fresno state’s recent heathen valley. it’s a great novel and day doesn’t screw it up by keeping it simple. what a concept. i’m glad mr munro noticed izzy’s work. his innovative and unusual lighting has been saving the sameold tired sets at the college for a while now. bolen’s costumes are always great and the acting was not flashy but real. again, what a concept. non mannered acting. acting that doesnt scream out HEY LOOK AT ME!!! I’M ACTING!! growl growl, chew scenery, pose like a model. the contrast of the science fiction story with the heartfelt actors was excellent.

thank you eric day and the library and woodward and severance and whoever else help make this happen.

IN says:

I attended Friday nights performance with my son. We had to leave rather quickly but on the way out I did get the chance to tell Mr. Otstot how much we enjoyed the play! I want to take this opportunity to tell Mr. Otstot what an amazing actor he has become since I last seen him perform in a play,(Woodward Shakespeare Festival). I want to give a big thanks to all the actors, director, Fresno County Library, California Public Theater, Woodward Shakespeare Festival and all those involved in “Fahrenheit 451″! Your combined compassion and hard work succeeded in bringing to those of us in attendance a very entertaining evening!! I also hope its a gentle reminder to those of us in attendance that we need to take the time to read a good book!!!!

Jessica Knotts says:

Thank you !! :)