Burn, Baby, Burn

GableStage has something to say about thinking freely

The decision to stage Fahrenheit 451 is a thinly veiled response to a 1990s Miami-Dade County ordinance banning groups with ties to Cuba from receiving public money. (Of course in Miami, not denouncing Fidel Castro at every turn is almost as bad as saying Gloria Estefan can't sing.) In 2000, GableStage joined forces with several other arts organizations, including Miami Light Project, and fought the ban in court with help from the ACLU, which called the county policy unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and struck down the ordinance. And with more waves of anti-Castro sentiment in the wake of this year's attempted Vamos a Cuba book ban, Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel is twice as timely.

Alongside 1984 and Brave New World (both also adapted for the screen and the stage), the dystopic Fahrenheit 451 imagines a future in which ruling powers infiltrate all, right down to every thought we have, telling us what to do via giant TV screens in our homes. It sounded scary when it was originally published in 1953, because it was so bizarre. It's scary now, because in many ways it has come true. Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, who works as a fireman in a time when the axiom "ignorance is bliss" is a lifestyle mantra. Firemen are paid not to fight fires but to set them — to stacks of books, which are hidden by renegade intellectuals who fight for the right to read. All books are ordered destroyed as part of the campaign to control people's thoughts, memories, and discourse.

GableStage's version is a stark and disquieting show about the powers of free thought. As is often the case with book-to-script adaptations, many details of the play differ from Bradbury's original, so having seen the film or (gasp!) read the book beforehand won't provide much assistance. For example, in the book certain characters vengefully blast foes with the firemen's kerosene hoses and then light them on fire; in the stage version, the roasting of one's enemies is substituted with a computer-controlled robotic killer wolf, which appears on illuminated panels stretching across the stage. The wolf will undoubtedly drive fans of the book crazy, and it does sound hokey. But the show is difficult to produce in many ways — it's no small challenge, making a story about book-burning exciting. Yet GableStage pulls it off.

Veteran Miami actor Bruce Linser plays Montag, the everyman fireman who must figuratively and literally challenge the meaning of his own life. Although he's a generally stoic, sympathetic antihero, Linser occasionally seemed to be giving his best impersonation of Captain Kirk, squaring his shoulders at the audience and barking his lines. Given the futuristic theme of the show, had he suddenly tapped his shoulder, said "Beam me up, Scotty!" and vanished into thin air, the production wouldn't have missed a beat. Fortunately by the end, the other actors were able to massage him into more heartfelt, human line readings, allowing him to fully express his life-or-death conflict over whether he should commit treason by reading the page of a book. His fear and paranoia are palpable. Kathryn Lee Johnston plays Montag's dimwitted wife Mildred, who spends her days fending actual thoughts from her brain, entertaining herself by talking to a TV screen programmed with voice-response recordings. Blank-eyed and vacuously smiling, Johnston is effectively spooky as the brainwashed product of Bradbury's future.

The play is written as a Fahrenheit 451 Lite production, a 90-minute one-act featuring only ten actors; several players portray multiple characters. The condensed nature allows the show to move quickly without becoming ponderous, but it occasionally makes things confusing, for you wonder which character an actor is supposed to be portraying when she/he walks onstage. Though the format is a fault, it's a minor one; the show is energetic and easy to watch, with refreshing performances from actors you wish you could see more of. Most memorable is an all-too-brief cameo by stage veteran Harriet Oser, as an elderly book-harboring rebel who stands up against the firemen and sets her contraband ablaze — igniting herself in the process. In perhaps the most glorious size-doesn't-matter performance of the year, Oser makes the most of her moment onstage, effortlessly stealing her scene with delicious focus and delivering every single word with a punch. Such a shame she kills herself off so soon.

In this age of blogs, Fahrenheit 451might seem dated. But the gift of this script is that it isn't necessarily about the book itself, but the right to think new thoughts when we want to think them. The author might not have envisioned exactly the world we live in, but his warning of the "dumbing down" of society certainly holds weight today, with a government that tells us what it thinks we want to hear. So when the actors pick up a book, it's not a collection of pages in their hands; it's a stack of possibilities, a compilation of dangers. And sitting in the audience, we feel a tinge of exhilaration.

 
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