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Where There’s Smoke

Putting out the fire with kerosene in Leebrick’s Fahrenheit 451

First published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 contains one of the great opening sentences in American literature: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Adapted from author Ray Bradbury’s own script and presented in collaboration with the Eugene Library’s “Big Read” project, Lord Leebrick’s production of Fahrenheit 451 is an eye-opener, especially for those of us whose recall of the novel is a bit fuzzy. As director Bobby Vrtis indicates in his program notes, this is no simple screed against state censorship.

Granted, Bradbury’s story contains the stock elements and narrative arc of classic dystopias, ranging from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We to Brave New World and 1984: a future society structured on totalitarian ideals of control, coercion and complacency, antithetical to all independence of thought, action and expression; an anti-hero (here, fireman Guy Montag, played with twitchy anxiety by Cameron Carlisle) haunted by thoughts that society is awry; a free-spirited woman (Arun Storrs’ perky, peppy Clarisse) whose sexualized smarts catalyze Guy’s nagging doubts into a dangerous act of rebellion; and a seductively paternal authority figure (fire chief Beatty, played with ominous aplomb by Stanley Coleman) who, deviously unloosing the screws of Guy’s sanity, reveals just how deeply the fix is in.

To be sure, the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 do torch books, but their acts of immolation are less punitive than sanitary; unlike George Orwell’s vision of the future as a boot stomping on a human face forever, Bradbury imagined something more incremental and insidious, requiring of its citizen-victims not obedience but complicity. “How unreasonable people are!” Kierkegaard joked. “They have freedom of thought — they demand freedom of speech.” It’s so easy: flood the environment with endless and omnipresent doses of kaleidoscopic distractions, and the synapses begin to fry.

In Leebrick’s highly stylized production, daily life in Fahrenheit 451 looks suspiciously like right now: overstimulated by whiz-bang technology, mesmerized by personal electronic devices, guided by inanimate voices and driven to distraction by such interactive Warholian wowzers as when Guy’s wife, Mildred (Kelsey McKean), inserts herself into her own TV talk show from the comfort of her living room. Those happy pills help, too — something to take the edge off, like Huxley’s soma. The idea, as Chief Beatty declares, is to “not let any oxygen get to the mind.” Information instead of comprehension, “non-combustible facts” that give a “sense of motion without moving.”

Utilizing Steen V. Mitchell’s surprisingly spare set — all open spaces and right angles, movable boxes and one huge projection screen — Vrtis makes something unnervingly beautiful of Bradbury’s cautionary tale; the production is intricately layered and propelled by passages of dance, a kind of narcotic movement that relays the spiritual stupor of society’s brain-squelch. The operatic opening scene archly sets the tone, and the transitions between abstract sequences to dialogue-driven action are, for the most part, seamless. Technology is used sparingly, but to strong effect. Tyranny echoes in the metallic flick of a Zippo lighter.

Fahrenheit 451 is delicately choreographed, and the vital performances — especially those by Carlisle, Coleman and Stephen Speidel as the self-exiled intellectual Faber, who literally gets in Guy’s ear — inject the material with an engagingly modern flair. If there is a drawback (a minor one), it’s that the more abstract, experimental sequences, while flowing nicely, tend to sap a sense of urgency from the production — as though this particular dystopia needs a splash of kerosene, a gush of anger and desperation to set all that kindling ablaze.

Then again ... as Faber tells Guy, when societies permit a free flow of ideas and the time to pursue them, citizens also have “the right to carry out independent actions” based on what we’ve learned. “Remember,” Faber warns, “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Perhaps the lack of urgency is our own emergency. — Rick Levin

Fahrenheit 451 plays through March 24 at Lord Leebrick Theatre; lordleebrick.org or 465-1506