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Salt Lake City Weekly Blatant Parallels

Plan-B's Fahrenheit 451 fires up the never-ending debate over censorship.

By Scott C. Morgan

MARCH 2, 1998:  Featuring an image of Rodin's "The Kiss" awash in flames on posters and program covers, Plan-B Theatre Company blatantly asks people to compare recent Utah headlines with the events in Fahrenheit 451's sci-fi fascist state. Surprisingly, the parallels between the two can be too close for anyone to comfortably distance themselves from what happens on stage.

Long before the controversy erupted over the BYU Rodin exhibit, Ray Bradbury's stage adaptation of his novel Fahrenheit 451 was selected for Plan-B's season. "We wanted to do a show that dealt with censorship, since it comes up a lot in Utah," said Cheryl Ann Cluff, artistic director of Plan-B. "And then [the Rodin exhibit controversy] happened, so we decided that we might as well use it to help advertise the show."

While "The Kiss" never appears in Plan-B's production, the dominating principles of "protecting others from unsuitable works" that kept "The Kiss" and other sculptures from public display is put to unsettling extremes in Fahrenheit 451.

"We wanted audiences to look at censorship in a different theatrical way," Cluff said after a performance at the New Hope Center — a building once used as an LDS chapel and later as a soft-porn studio. "We had a great turnout for tonight, so I think we're getting the message across."

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury creates a world where firemen burn all books without any question, the scent of kerosene is a potent cologne, and fire is the ultimate symbol of power. By itself, Bradbury's adaptation is pretty cut-and-dry as a sci-fi drama. But with Plan-B's unconventional staging, the show takes on a distinct edge that continually demands attention.
photo: Fred Hayes
A burning issue: Charlton James and Jeremy Johnsson in Fahrenheit 451.

In director L.L. West's capable hands, Fahrenheit 451 becomes an exercise in Brechtian epic theater techniques that continually remind the audience that they are watching a play.

Throughout the play, actors speak the stage directions aloud, often introducing their own character in the third-person ("Mildred enters"). Multiple roles are taken on by actors, sometimes changing costumes and characters in full view of the audience. And the line between audience and actors is blurred in the end as both combine to create a valiant community that fights censorship.

Although many of these techniques can be disorienting at first, they quickly become familiar, so the audience can follow along as easily as a traditionally staged play. As the show progresses, all the unconventional theater tricks start to click into place with the play's promotion of individual ideas and interpretations.

Fahrenheit 451's simple-yet-smart design also works to the play's advantage. Plan-B clearly does not have the budget to realistically create all of the sci-fi settings, but that's not necessarily a negative thing. Instead, it is the show's sparse nature that allows the audience to conjure their own interpretations of all the futuristic devices and images.

Randy Podosek's multi-level set with non-specific projections is practical and effective, as are David Stewart and Kelly Nickle's costumes that are never outlandishly space-age or too complicated. Wilton Koernig's lighting design also helps to fill in the moods and emotions of the play.

photo: Fred Hayes
Director L.L. West

But it is the acting ensemble that ultimately illustrates West's concept staging, bringing it vividly to life.

As Montag, the fireman who begins to question the purpose of his work, Charleton James is right on the mark in a performance that brims with confusion and desperation. With his slight Southern accent and imposing figure, James is the driving force that keeps the play on track.

His nemesis, Beatty, brilliantly played by Tracey Micheal Hall, continually challenges Montag by playing devil's advocate and tempting him to discover what is within the books that he burns. Hall's performance richly combines the bitter self-loathing and hypocritical posturing necessary for Beatty to be effective and believable.

Another standout in the cast is Gayle Staffanson as the housewife Mildred, which easily draws a parallel to Prozac or Valium-addicted housewives.

Plan-B regular Jeremy Jonsson also gives a strong performance as the intellectual Faber, even though Jonsson's skills in Fahrenheit 451 are not allowed to shine as much in past Plan-B productions.

The only questionable performance in Fahrenheit 451 comes from Meg Charlier. While her narrow-minded housewife, Helen, is appropriately over-the-top, her turn as the inspired girl, Clarisse, is never genuine and sounds almost recited. One wonders what Montag saw in Clarisse to spur him to question his beliefs.

While Plan-B's current home is way out on the west side of town, it is well worth the journey. And though Utah has a long way to go before it descends to Fahrenheit 451's world where everything with signs of independent thought is censored, the show's message is very timely. Armed with the warning "while you can still choose" on its poster, Fahrenheit 451's is a powerful reminder that the fight for free speech is constant.

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