Review: FAHRENHEIT 451 by Different Stages At The Vortex

By: Nov. 21, 2016

FAHRENHEIT 451 is a play based on the 1953 dystopian novel of the same name by Ray Bradbury. The novel is regarded as one of his best works. It presents a future society where books are outlawed and "firemen" burn any that are found. The title comes from the temperature at which paper becomes combustible. There was a 1966 film adaptation of the novel and Bradbury himself developed it into this play in the late 70s. Bradbury has stated that he wrote it to address his concerns about the McCarthy era and the threat of book burning. In later years, he stated it was a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature. The story is set in an unspecified city at an unspecified time in the future somewhere after the year 1960.

Guy Montag (Kriston Woodreaux) is a "fireman" employed to burn the homes of people guilty of the crime of reading books, which have been outlawed. One night while walking home from work, he meets his new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarisse (Bria Washington), whose ideas and joy of living cause him to question his own life and happiness. He returns home to find that his wife Mildred (Martina Ohlhauser) has overdosed on pills. Mildred survives with no memory of what happened. Over the proceeding days, Clarisse regularly meets Montag on his walk home. He looks forward to these meetings, and just as he begins to expect them, Clarisse goes missing.

In the days that follow, he and the other "firemen" ransack the book-filled house of an old woman (Kathy Rose Center) before the inevitable burning. She refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light the match that burns her alive. Montag manages to steal a book without any of his coworkers noticing. When William Beatty (Rick Smith), Montag's fire chief, visits Montag he senses something different about Montag. Beatty explains to him how books lost their value and where the "firemen" fit in. Over time people embraced mass media and sports. The ever faster pace of life caused books to be seriously abridged to accommodate an ever shortening attention span. Minority groups began protesting what they perceived as outdated content in books. The government took advantage of this, and the "firemen" were hired to burn books in the name of the public good. Beatty notes that all "firemen" eventually steal a book out of curiosity; if the book is burned within 24 hours, the "fireman" and his family will not get in trouble.

While Bradbury's script very clearly outlines the steps that can lead society to something as horrendous as prohibiting literature, it fails to address the massive technological advances of the last fifty years. This disconnect often happens with older science fiction, causing it to be dated. Because of this, FAHRENHEIT 451 fails to grab the audience to shake us out of complacency. Instead, the most this script can shoot for is to remind the audience of the value of freedom of speech and the dangers of mindless media. Unfortunately, this production rarely succeeds, due to its uneven performances.

Director Lily Woolf has staged the piece with intricate blocking patterns that, while interesting, do nothing to move the pace along. The entire evening seems plagued by pacing issues. There is also no sense of the gloom or menace one normally expects from dystopian fiction. Additionally, some improvisational moments appear to have been added during the scene changes that irritatingly that take you out of the moment when the tonal patterns between improv and script do not mesh. Bradbury's original play called for a cast of 24 actors which for this production has been pared down to 10, which makes for some less than successful doubling.

The technical aspects of the production are quite solid. Lowell Bartholomee's sound and video design are the best things in this production. He has created an aural sound-scape that is both chilling and captivating. I also liked Ann Marie Gordon's monochromatic multipurpose set design that provided an effective palette for the multiple locales of this cinematically written piece. Natalie George's lighting is also wonderfully effective. Likewise, Lirit Pendell's costumes effectively suggested a futuristic world.

Rick Smith, as William Beatty, has some great moments, especially his monologue describing how the "firemen" fit into this world and what happened to get to this point. I would have liked to see a little more sense of menace in his performance, however. Gary L. Peters is terrific both as Professor Faber and Dostoyevsky. His performance was the only one that gave me the sense of terror that would permeate the inhabitants of this chilling future. Kriston Woodreaux as Guy Montag never seemed to advance beyond the somnambulist state he first appears as. Martina Ohlhauser, as Mildred, gives a different take on what is usually considered to be a robotic and emotionless character, portraying her instead as a giddy and childlike average citizen. Bria Washington does a nice job portraying the youthful optimism of Clarisse.

FAHRENHEIT 451 as a novel, reads like a fevered dream. The novel is totally cinematic, full of images that remain with you long after you have finished reading it. Unfortunately, this current production doesn't offer much more than the prescient messages of the source material. It mostly feels like missed opportunities.

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Running time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours including Intermission

Advisory: Heavy use of haze during the performance

FAHRENHEIT 451, produced by Different Stages at The Vortex (2307 Manor Road, Austin, TX, 78722)

November 11 - December 3, 2016

Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 pm., Sundays 6:00 pm.

No performance on Thanksgiving, Thursday November 24 and added performance on Wednesday November 11.

Tickets are: $15 on Thursdays, $20, $25 or $30 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

For tickets and information call 512-478-5282 Or


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