nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 21, 2006
Imagine a world where books have been outlawed and firemen don't put out fires but rather start them, to destroy the libraries that have somehow still survived. This is the world that Ray Bradbury famously hypothesized in his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and subsequently dramatized in a tense one-act play. It's the world that Joe Tantalo and Godlight Theatre Company have brought to riveting, awesome life in a new production that ranks among the most significant works of theatre currently on view in NYC. The current political climate in America makes the cautionary message of Bradbury's work especially timely: repression of ideas is becoming more and more institutionalized, and a chance to stare down the future that might be in store is important and inspiring.
But there's more to Fahrenheit 451 than this.
Imagine a world where people live their lives inside a constant droning hum of noise and images; where everybody can be the star of their own TV show; where people medicate themselves to forget their anxieties; where happiness and the pursuits of pleasure are the most—nay, the only—prized aspirations. Not such a difficult leap, is it? This future is here already, and the great triumph of Tantalo's work in this production is that he manages to make the culture of mass communication that we all think we can't live without feel alien and unfamiliar even as its retro sci-fi trappings feel quaint. There's method in this: the unreality/surreality of the world of the play jolts and jars and never feels comfortable. If he can get us to feel unsettled in surroundings that we have begun to take for granted—and he certainly did in my case—then Tantalo has done his job here well.
The story of Fahrenheit 451 centers around a young man named Guy Montag, who works as a fireman in this futuristic society. Guy's life is going fine until he meets a girl named Clarisse whose quirky other-ness shakes him up. Clarisse tells Guy, "When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that." When a woman burns her own house down (with herself inside) rather than allow the firemen to destroy her books, Guy's curiosity grows. Eventually, Guy the obedient public "servant" slowly transforms into a man on a quest for understanding and knowledge.
The play's antagonist is Guy's boss, Captain Beatty, a man who has firsthand knowledge of the power of books and is determined to make sure that they won't be opening up any more minds under his watch. As Guy's awareness of what he's been missing increases, he becomes more challenging of his chief, leading to a confrontation between the two that forms the play's genuinely exciting climax. I actually found what follows to be less compelling, but no matter: the potent message of Bradbury's play is so chillingly and completely realized here that the storyline per se becomes less important than the call to action that is this production's key theme.
Ten actors perform the play, though it often seems as if there must be at least twice that many: not only are most double- or triple-cast, but virtually all take part in creating the non-stop noise that passes for ambience in the world of this piece, sometimes as the disembodied voices of TV and other "official" announcements, and other times whispering snatches of not-quite-decipherable broadcasts in the background. Gracy Kaye and Teal Wicks are especially memorable as Guy's wife Mildred and Clarisse, respectively; Gregory Konow is commanding and disturbingly intelligent as Captain Beatty. Anchoring the proceedings superlatively is Ken King as the ultimately heroic Guy.
Tantalo's staging—in the round, in the intimate Theater C at 59E59—is visceral, taut, immediate. Everything that happens is too close for comfort on Maruti Evans's stark unit set. Evans's masterful lighting effects and Andrew Recinos's remarkable soundscape and score are supremely evocative; they frame each moment while providing us space to fill in the details that they can't/won't show us: our imaginations and intellects are put to work here, in sharp contrast with their arrested and numbed counterparts depicted in the play. That's finally the main point of this production, I think: that as long as we have theatre we can actively engage in (as opposed to stuff we just passively watch), we still have at least one weapon in our arsenal to fend off those who would repress independent thinking. Tantalo and his crew, like Bradbury's hero, are fighting the good fight.