Heat. Red flame. The smell of kerosene and ink. This is book burning, a tactic of control and suppression that has been used since the birth of human civilization. It is the ultimate attack on freedom of thought and the right to publicly dissent. Even more dangerous, it allows those in power to shape (and even collectively erase) public memory into a story that benefits them. It is this danger that is explored in “Fahrenheit 451,” a dystopian classic by Ray Bradbury written during the height of the Red Scare. For the next two weekends, this tale will be available for all to experience as it is told on stage by the Three Bone Theater.
For those unfamiliar with the specifics of the plot, “Fahrenheit 451” tells the story of Guy Montag (Harry Jones Jr.), a fireman in a not-so-distant dystopian future. However, in this future, firemen start fires rather than put them out. Their job is to burn books, a source of information and entertainment that has become illegal, and the houses (and sometimes people) who harbor them. However, a chance meeting with his neighbor Clarisse (Stefani Cronley) sends Montag into a dangerous spiral. Ultimately, he is forced to choose between his growing desire for answers and the safety and ease of fitting in.
The performance company behind the production, Three Bone Theater, is relatively new to the Charlotte theater scene. However, one wouldn’t know that from the quality of the production. “Fahrenheit 451” has managed to compile a cast of extremely talented local actors who pull off this production brilliantly. In fact, this is one of the most well-rounded casts I’ve seen this entire season. The Duke Energy Theater complements the show nicely, as the intimacy of the small cast, minimalist set and close performance space draw the audience in.
Of course, no show is without issue. “Fahrenheit 451’s” struggles generally come from the script, with is both long and wordy. The show runs a little over two hours and a majority of the script comes directly from Bradbury’s novel. While “Fahrenheit 451” makes an extremely important point about the dangers of anti-intellectualism and book burning, it also risks bordering on pretentiousness. A number of the production’s quotes come from classic novels and rhetors and may fly above the audience’s heads. In one tense (and extremely well-performed) scene, two characters fling dueling words of philosophers at one another. While the scene ultimately succeeds in getting its message across, it may alienate members of the audience with no understanding or background knowledge of the quotes.
However, this production of “Fahrenheit 451” overcomes its long-winded script simply by the talent and commitment of its actors. While the sheer magnitude of the lines could have overpowered the players, they instead made the long monologues and arguments their own. Every character felt real and every line was packed with backstory and emotion. Harry Jones Jr. as Montag is absolutely magnetic. The audience truly feels and cheers for him. The character’s personal journey is apparent in the way Jones carries himself, in the way he delivers lines, and in the way he expresses himself around other characters. Even in scenes in which Montag is mostly silent or confused, the emotion plays clearly on Jones’ face.
Heightening the production, Thom Tonetti as Fire Chief Beatty is one of the most compelling “villains I have seen in a theater production. Beatty is an enigmatic character whose actions and motivations sometimes seem to directly contradict each other. He is an angry and hurt ex-book lover, who turned to books during a time of need and failed to find solace. Tonetti takes this inner struggle and runs with it. At times, he plays the character as sympathetic, causing the audience to almost pity the chief. Not even minutes later, the character transforms into a whip-smart, cold and absolutely terrifying villain. There were points in the production in which it felt like the character was legitimately unhinged.
This talent was matched by Bill Reilly as the scared and quick-witted Professor Faber. Though Faber is only present for a few scenes in act two, Reilly plays the time for all he has. During the aforementioned scene in which two characters fight through words, Faber is tasked with providing the words for Montag. The scene is staged with Faber on a walkway above the two men (Montag and Beatty). This works brilliantly, as one is able to watch the three men perform simultaneously. It is beautifully compelling and tense. Stefani Cronley’s Clarisse is also a powerful performance. She provides a perfect character contrast to Montag and seems, at times, to be the only light in the dark world of “Fahrenheit 451.”
Dystopian stories like “Fahrenheit 451” illustrate the worries and concerns our society has about the future. However, they also serve as warnings. They ask audiences to understand what path they believe society is heading in and to prevent the events and characteristics seen in the dystopia. While “Fahrenheit 451” was originally written during the Red Scare and reflects the fears of that time period, it remains ever relevant today. Book burning is still used as a control tactic in a number of oppressive regimes around the world. Beyond the act of book burning though, “Fahrenheit 451” warns the public about all attacks on freedom of speech and thought. This is especially stressed at the end of Three Bone’s production of the play. In the closing scene, the lights dim on the actors as they read snippets of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution aloud. In today’s divisive times, this feels like a warning worth hearing.
“Fahrenheit 451,” produced by the Three Bone Theater company, is playing Nov 2-4 and 9-11 at the Duke Energy Theater in Spirit Square. Tickets are $22 in advance and $28 at the door; all shows start at 8 pm.