All through the impressive displays of computer-generated imagery in Round House Theatre’s “Fahrenheit 451” — based on Ray Bradbury’s apocalyptic novel about a society burning all of its books — an audience member may be forgiven for thinking: “Um, ever heard of Kindle?”
Of course, Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit” in the early ’50s, when he could have been prescient about intellectual repression but not about the ability of humankind to digitize its literary resources. Nor could he have anticipated the power of social media to foment revolution in societies in which regimes seek tight control over political and artistic expression.
But even if you accept Bradbury’s story as a metaphor, it loses its symbolic power in director Sharon Ott’s labored offering at the Bethesda theater. Packing her play with all manner of geegaws — the production credits a motion-media designer, animator and projection engineer — this “Fahrenheit” boasts the antiseptic look of the soulless future found in so much popular science fiction.
The problem is that in employing the latest techniques, including the manipulation by the tome-burning “firemen” of a snarling computer-generated cur that hunts down its book-coveting prey, the production creates the impression that it is going to account for concurrent advances in software and technology. That it ignores things like the existence of digital libraries asks of an audience a strange variety of suspension of disbelief.
Worse, the plodding dialogue by Bradbury himself — he adapted the stage version about 25 years after writing the novel — often feels like the sort of droning sermon you wish came with an on-off switch. This is especially true of an endless speech accorded to Jefferson A. Russell, who plays Beatty, a learned fireman of baroquely mysterious motives. Through no fault of Russell, so good in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s recent “Clybourne Park,” Beatty is a gasbag given to ponderously twee pontification.
High school English students and other devotees of the novel will instantly recognize the story of young Montag (David Bonham), a member of a squad assigned to incinerate all traces of literature, as he slowly becomes curious about the words he’s compelled to violently erase. Ghastly conformity, as embodied by Montag’s Stepford wife, Mildred (Liz Mamana), is the government’s fondest wish, and freethinkers like Montag’s childlike neighbor Clarisse (Aurora Heimbach) are enemies of the state.
The acting is all of a suitably alarmist nature. Though younger readers may enjoy experiencing a familiar novel brought to life with some technical sophistication, many will still regard the level of social commentary as rather elementary. A sci-fi play fixating on, for example, the mind-controlling properties of TV is, more than anything else, mired in the past.
by Ray Bradbury. Directed by Sharon Ott. Production design, Hal Tine; costumes, Dawn Testa; lighting, Ruth Hutson; music and sound, Steve LeGrand; director, live-action film segments, Michael Jackson Chaney; motion media design, Alessandro Imperato; animation, David Wardell. With B. Todd Johnston, Mark Hairston, Katie Atkinson, Rachel Holt, John Lescault. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.