FAH451 1

Farenheit 451: Keeping the Flame Alive

FAH451 1

I was the consummate bookworm as a child. I ate books like the air, and so in my youth, as I plowed through the words of Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451 held a particular horror for me. The idea of the wholesale wanton and brutal destruction of those collections of words and pages that gave my life meaning literally raised goosebumps on my arms. In fact, it still does as I realized watching Roundhouse Theatre’s mesmerizing theatrical production of Bradbury’s most enduring work.

Director Sharon Ott of the Savannah College of Art and Design, has designed a multi-media presentation of projections, animation, and computer generated images. A future that once seemed fantastical when Bradbury wrote his opus fifty years ago, has now become terrifyingly present. The rise of “TV walls” where there’s a constant blare of sound and lights to distract from thought. Where every thought is reduced to a 10-second sound bite. Where overmedicated people can only obtain satisfaction through shallow participation in a media soaked culture of “family play hour” to give them a false sense of connection. It’s basically all the current trends of our media rooms, reality TV, YouTube sensations, ADHD, and so forth with the volume turned up a couple notches.

“Baskerville 9” the terrifying eight-footed mechanical “hound” designed to hunt down malcontents seen in animation on the stage screens is startlingly effective. Kudos are earned by the entire production team not only for the high quality of the effects but also for the way they are seamlessly woven into the story. The effects add to the human drama rather than overwhelm it.

YouTube Preview ImageSince Farenheit 451 is, after all, a human drama it ultimately rises and falls on the strength of the performances. David Bonham is a sensitive and conflicted presence as Montag, the fireman who ultimately realizes that he has constructed the Hound to hunt himself. Liz Mamana hits the nail on the head as Montag’s pill popping, TV-obsessed wife Mildred. It’s a performance of the “desperate housewife” that’s both more hilarious and more bleak than even January Jones as Betty Draper on Mad Men. And local talent Jefferson Russell is quite simply a revelation as Fire Chief Beatty the Boy Who Loved Books who grew up to be the Man Who Torches Libraries.

Bradbury’s dialogue is never more lyrical or more profound than when Russell delivers it and a battle of wits between him, Montag, and the voice in Montag’s ear provides one of the most dynamic conflicts I’ve ever seen on the stage. The only performance that fails to hold up well is that of Aurora Heimbac as Clarisse. She’s enchanting and other worldly in the role but she’s the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl; a source of fantasy and inspiration for the here Montag; but just not a convincing person in her own right. Or perhaps that’s just the way Bradbury wrote her.

An interesting irony to the show is that while it decries the spread of electronic media and so forth it freely uses the technology in a play that’s a love letter to the written word. Or perhaps that’s not so ironic; new technologies can be synthesized with the love for classic literature. Look at Kindles. Someday perhaps we might see a play about that.

Photos by Danisha Crosby, from top:
1. David Bonham (as Montag)
2. Aurora Heimbach (as Clarisse) and David Bonham (as Montag)
3. Jefferson A. Russell (as Beatty)
4. David Bonham (as Montag), Liz Mamana (as Mildred), Rachel Holt (as Alice), and Katie Atkinson (as Helen)

Farenheit 451
Roundhouse Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD
Through October 9, 2011

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