On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
Many reviews of Godlight Theatre Company’s production of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury adapted it for the stage years ago; Joe Tantalo directs) have marveled about the way it manages to bring home Bradbury's prescience when he wrote it in 1953, and that it reminds you of how extremely, almost painfully relevant Bradbury’s concerns from back then still are today. So, contrarian that I am, I was prepared to go to the show and look for ways to poke holes in those claims. Instead, I have to admit that I mostly agree with them. The show is performed with appropriate urgency and feels quite immediate; if Bradbury’s vision of a world in which firemen set fires rather than fight them isn’t literally true yet, he at least seems here to have anticipated a lot about the way society and people’s attitudes would develop, and Godlight demonstrates that with alacrity.
I trust that for most people it’s unnecessary to rehash the plot, at least its essence; there are certain side stories that I had forgotten about since I read the book, as is probably the same for many, but the main story of a future world in which books are routinely burned, the country is on a seemingly permanent war footing and no one asks questions about what the government is doing or why, that’s probably generally familiar. If not, go read the book, you should anyway. As the central character, Guy Montag, the fireman with a conscience, Ken King is fantastic. The contrast between his behavior in his scenes with the “crazy” girl Clarisse (Teal Wicks) and in those with his wife Mildred (Gracy Kaye) says a great deal about the situation on its own. Wicks and Kaye both inhabit their roles thoroughly and convincingly – Wicks is as loosey-goosey as a 16-year-old should be, and gives Clarisse a beautiful internal illumination, while Kaye has a nervous energy that often escalates almost to panic and is ideal for the high-strung Mildred. Finally among the main roles, Gregory Konow as Captain Beatty is downright sinister, but he matches King’s performance for intelligence and intensity, just as his character matches Montag wit and degree of consciousness about the world around him.
Though for the most part the play is totally gripping, Bradbury naturally retained much of the original dialogue from the book, and the speeches can tend to sound a bit stilted, or at least over-eloquent. Also (and this is a tiny quibble that has nothing to do with the staging) I couldn’t help but muse that one technological development that has taken the world in a different direction from what Bradbury envisioned, and that is the rise of the iPod; in Fahrenheit 451, Montag starts his rebellion with the help of Clarisse’s uncle, who speaks to him through a little earpiece that is supposedly the sort of thing everyone’s has forgotten about because they are all always watching huge television screens or enormous billboards, but I think that in the future we’ll all just have iPod-type earbuds implanted and we’ll have information and music and ads, all of it customized for us, piped into our ears, creating a sense of connection and involvement that will mask the truth of our total isolation. Anyway, it’s hardly Bradbury’s fault that he didn’t predict the iPod; he certainly foresaw a lot more about the way civilization was going than many people did back in the day, though unfortunately what he wrote wasn’t really heeded.
In short, Godlight’s production is vivid and gripping, from the moment you walk in to the smoke-filled theater where the sounds of first responders ricochet around the stage (word to the wise: get there early, as it’s general admission; there’s seating on all four sides, but you don’t want to get stuck in a corner, even though it’s kind of interesting to be there because you can more clearly hear the mutterings and exclamations performed by the rest of the cast to create the new world’s paranoid sound environment). It’s also impressively physical; though the characters occasionally overdo the writhing, choreographer Hachi Yu seems to have injected a welcome and unique sense of life into the actors’ bodies, in the same way this Fahrenheit 451 injects life into Bradbury’s long-ago warnings about the danger of forgetting the incalculable value of engaging our minds with books and instead allowing ourselves to be passively enthralled by “entertainments” and politics that don’t ask us to think – that in fact actively discourage us from thinking, in order that those in power might have their way without us ever raising an objection, if we’re even aware that there’s something amiss.
59E59 Theaters // 59 E. 59th St. // Through April 23, Tues.-Sat. 8:30pm, Sun. 7:30pm // Tickets at Ticket Central
Photo by Simon Alexander