Stage & Dance

Review: Balagula's 'Fahrenheit' is ambitious, thrilling

It is rare to see a classic science-fiction dystopia presented on stage, but Balagula Theatre is doing that in its latest production, the lofty, electric Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The play is a departure for the troupe not just in genre but in scale. Where small casts in intimate settings usually grace the stage at Natasha's Bistro & Bar, this show demands a dozen actors and the sweeping re-creation of a powerful totalitarian state, which Bradbury imagined as humanity's future in his 1953 novel.

Likewise, Balagula usually tends to keep technical elements simple, whether by necessity (I remember the early days when there was just a light shining on the café's performance space) or by artistic choice.

Fahrenheit 451 is an altogether different beast.

Director Ryan Case pulls out all the stops — splashes of film (by Eugene Alexander Williams and Tom Willis), an original soundtrack (by Rob Thomas), complexly choreographed lighting (also by Willis) — to create the illusion that audience members have stepped inside the nightmare of Bradbury's foreboding imagination, a world where books are not just banned but hunted down and burned by firemen, who do not put out fires but start them.

The production is undercut occasionally by the scale of its own ambition, but it is nonetheless a thrilling descent into a frightening world where thinking has been eradicated by doing, where humanity itself — not the biological human being, but the reflective, dreamful, creative essence of humanity — threatens to be eradicated.

What's particularly fascinating, and spookily prescient, is that the people of Bradbury's imagined future have chosen their ignorance. When Gene Arkle's character Faber, a former English professor, says, "People stopped reading on their own accord," I could not help but think about the millions of Americans who know more about Snooki than Shakespeare.

Case's coordination of the play's multilayered elements is fluid, engaging and exciting. One of the most satisfying aspects of the show is Thomas' sound design, an eerie, industrial soundscape that seems filmic. Unfortunately, at least at Sunday's opening performance, this occasionally competed in volume with some of the actors, who should have projected more so audience members didn't have to strain to hear important dialogue.

Sam Moody delivers a solid performance as Guy Montag, who as a fireman represents the model of the establishment — until he has a jarring run-in with a woman who would rather die than let the firemen burn her secret library. Hayley Williams easily captures a television-obsessed housewife vacuously content with the status quo, even after overdosing on happy pills, purposefully or not.

But the most dynamic performer by far is Tom Phillips as Beatty, the fire chief and Montag's boss. A onetime avid reader turned book burner, Beatty has wit and a deep understanding of this dystopia's most disturbing ills; that makes him a fascinatingly complex character. Phillips' stunning delivery of Beatty's lecture about how the world came to fear and destroy books is masterful. He is easily the glue that holds the performance elements of the show together. The ensemble's less experienced actors would do well to study his techniques.

Despite the bleak future painted in Fahrenheit 451, it ends with hope for humanity, eloquently punctuated by Willis' lighting. Contrasted with the glaring, pale light and shadow that colored earlier scenes, the finale is washed in something never before seen in this world: the golden glow of a fire that is for warmth, not burning.

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