Long before we watched Oceanic Flight 815 crash onto a mysterious island on the TV show Lost, or pondered the truces, alliances, and backstabbing of Survivor, there was another island whose stranded inhabitants fascinated readers around the world.
Lord of the Flies, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding, was a best seller in the 1960s and still retains a top spot on many high school reading lists. The novel chronicles a group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash, and their attempt to govern themselves. The results are disastrous, with the boys eventually breaking apart into two separate “gangs,” one of which is focused on maintaining a sense of order and getting rescued. The other reverts to savagery, their only concern hunting, feasting, dancing, and sometimes murder.
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In its second production of the season, SummerFest presents a riveting, appropriately disturbing stage adaptation (by Nigel Williams) of Golding's tale.
Before there is a story, though, there is the island, or the setting of the island. A multi-tiered stage strewn with unkempt vines stands empty. When the first two boys appear, Ralph and Piggy, the island seems like a paradise, a beach vacation where you can do whatever you want. But events on the island soon turn it into something much more sinister. Set designer David Steinmetz, lighting designer Kathy Lea Meyer and assistant lighting designer Josh Preston work in tandem to create a wild, organic jungle that grows increasingly foreboding and dangerous.
Susan Wigglesworth's costuming further emphasizes the boys' deconstruction of their own sense of civilization. Showing up in preppy school uniforms, including ties and sweaters, Jack and his classmates already have a sense of being a group: They are in the school choir, and Jack is head chorister. By the end of the play, they are running around half-naked, covered in blood and war paint. Piggy, a chubby, bespectacled boy who never stopped lobbying for “a meetin'” and order, never changes out of his striped shirt and slacks.
The boys and young men in the cast deserve praise for their spirited, psychologically intense performance. Initially voted the boys' leader, David Jackson's Ralph is a solid, charismatic chief who listens to the group and tries to make the best decisions for them all. His rival for leadership is Nick Dunn's Jack, who thinks he ought to be in charge since he is, after all, head chorister.
Even though Ralph tries to keep order by instituting basic rules and procedures, Jack largely ignores their significance and eventually starts his own tribe of hunters. Jack capitalizes on the group's fear that there is a “beastie” in the forest, and a kind of dark mythology is born that leads the boys to “spill his blood.” Jack tells them that the beast can take any form, and when the hunters' savage frenzy leads to a murder, Jack says it is OK because the beast was inside the victim. He ultimately uses this strategy again against Piggy (Grayson Whittenbarger), the lone voice of reason and order, who bravely persists in his dedication to remembering civilization, even though he is largely made fun of, ignored and abused.
The ensemble cast functions together as a living, breathing unit. They are particularly strong in their use of movement. From upright, uptight school boys, to crouching, spear-carrying savages, the boys move in raw, fluid synchronization. Their collective scenes of group frenzy, fear, mirth and murder are mesmerizing in their orchestration and sharply timed, particularly when accompanied by Tripp Bratton's original drum score.
Director Sullivan Canaday White and assistant director Jacob Sexton create visually engaging moments. Their artful staging gives a satisfying sense of texture and theme. They've also evoked sophisticated performances from their young cast, who handle the material with a deft sense of ease and natural progress.
The result is a show that is edgy and disturbing, but fascinating. What are the components of civilization? Can humanity ever successfully govern itself? How would any of us react in the same situations? Would we become savages, too? Is there anything wrong with that?