Photo by Dennis J. Kent
"MANUSCRIPTS DON'T BURN" IS PROBABLY the most famous line from Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov's now famous and once famously censored 1939 novel, The Master and Margarita. The Master is a Faustian love story by and about (among many other things) a financially impoverished novelist silenced by the Soviets, who in a moment of despair tosses his life's work to an awaiting fire while the devil wreaks havoc in Stalin's Russia.
There were 14 years between Bulgakov's completion of The Master and Margarita and the publication of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a futuristic, dystopian novel (and later a film) about a totalitarian government that burns literature. As such, it's highly unlikely that Bradbury would have known much about Bulgakov or his writings. Yet Fahrenheit is also a Faustian love story that depicts the terror of a regime that tries to restrict the free flow of ideas and information, and it, too, settles with pinpoint precision upon the idea that manuscripts don't burn — meaning that even if they're censored or go up in smoke, they still don't go away. (Fahrenheit closes with a utopian vision of misfits in the woods, memorizing classical texts for posterity.)
In Bradbury's world, fire departments are kerosene-bearing armies that aim blowtorches at stacks of literature. When a fire crew outfitted in Alex Jaeger's Star Trek-like costumes answers an alarm, the audience is promptly provided with a romantic icon and moral compass in the person of old Mrs. Hudson (Priscilla Allen), defiantly going up in flames with her beloved library rather than surrendering to thought control. Meanwhile, the play's centerpiece, fireman Montag (D.B. Sweeney), shudders at the sight and wonders what's in the books that Hudson valued more than her life.
Perversely, the play's Mephistopheles — Fire Chief Beatty (the mesmerizing John M. Jackson) -- owns a secret stash of books he never reads, consigning them to "rot on the shelves." Beatty's love-hate relationship with literature, and its failure to guide him through life's travails, contains the play's richest psychological vein as Beatty leads Montag through a loyalty test, tempting him to take home a book or two, while cautioning him not to crack their spines. That the young fireman needs to flirt with a book-reading bohemian waif (Becky Wahlstrom), that he feels so estranged from his society, from its high-tech solipsism, from its TV-walls, and from his own wife (Marguerite MacIntyre) triggers his Faustian barter with the devil. Like Marlowe's Faust, toying with black magic, Montag risks his marriage and his life in order to decode little dots on pages that hold the mystery of the ages. A pompous actor would have turned this into a cloying affair, but Sweeney's hangdog Montag accounts for much of the production's tenderness.
THIS MOSTLY CAPTIVATING WORLD PREMIERE of Bradbury's play is presented by the Falcon Theater in Burbank, and by the author's Pandemonium Theater Company. Bradbury has adapted his own novel in a rendition that, ironically for a work bemoaning the loss of literature, maintains its snap by keeping literary devices off the stage. Every shred of narrative has been converted into dialogue, and there's none of the "he said" and "she said" asides that punctuate Seattle's Book It! Repertory's many adaptations of literature for the theater.
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Director Charles Rome Smith stages the play with Spartan elegance on a large, mostly open playing space, accentuated by the backdrop of Jerry Belich's haunting, animated digital effects, beamed onto a trio of upstage screens through the action. That, with the Dolby-like quality of sound designers Dan O'Connell and Suzzy London's blaring sirens and growling Hound of the Baskervilles (a robot programmed to hunt down books and their keepers), brings home the production's technological gloss, which is thematically apt at the very least.
Act 2 lags somewhat, not because of the play, but because Smith has consigned a grandfatherly character (Jay Gerber), who is responsible for Montag's further literary education, to an upstage bed, where he's forced to carry the action while lying on his back. I doubt even Olivier or Al Pacino could have pulled that one off.
The allegory of flames for the end of reasoned public debate, for the cultural ascendance of Oprah and corporate-sponsored professional sports, and for diminished attention spans that have made it fashionable to ridicule not only intellectuals, but the very qualities of reflection and thoughtfulness, is here distressingly prescient and moving, despite its obviousness. Perhaps it's all so upsetting because Bradbury argues so persuasively, even to those who might not have considered the idea, that for the past 50 years, we've been like Fire Chief Beatty, tempting our own destruction, devolving into a high-tech version of the Stalinistic society that Bulgakov railed against.
FAHRENHEIT 451 | By RAY BRADBURY | Presented by PANDEMONIUM THEATER COMPANY and the FALCON THEATER, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank | Through November 24