TAMPA — It's easy to see why Jobsite Theater chose to stage Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
It's a play from the 1970s based on a novel from the early 1950s, but Bradbury was so prescient that many of his themes seem immediate.
In Bradbury's dystopian world, television is the villain that creates a population of vacuous women who are force-fed passive entertainment, and pseudo-intellectual men who speak and think in profound quotations that they don't understand and can't use in the proper context.
It doesn't take much imagination to extrapolate that idea and realize that the Internet, Facebook and other electronic media have exacerbated the problems Bradbury foresaw.
Unfortunately, there's also something that feels dated about Fahrenheit 451. The idea of a totalitarian near-future has, since the novel's time, become so familiar that it borders on cliche and has often been portrayed more effectively than it is here. The obvious comparison is to 1984, which, like Fahrenheit 451, focuses one man who feels vaguely dissatisfied, then meets a woman who helps open his mind and emboldens him to action. 1984 came first by a few years and is infinitely more powerful.
The Jobsite production underscores the weaknesses and doesn't bring any extra power to Bradbury's more potent warnings.
It's not that director Katrina Stevenson and her fine cast don't grasp Brabdbury's ideas. The production is obviously well-intentioned and has some moments of real impact.
But there's a bizarre hodgepodge of acting styles that works against the play's overall effectiveness. Chris Jackson is low-key and appropriately vacant as Montag, the government functionary who begins to question the wisdom of his job as a book-burner. Giles Davies is manic, like a cross between Jim Carrey and a right-wing radio talk show host, as Montag's boss. Ned Averill-Snell's performance as a patriarchal but closeted intellectual is deep and richly textured.
These are all excellent actors, and these are all strong and entertaining performances (Averill-Snell is particularly stunning, but unfortunately he doesn't appear until after intermission). But the actors seem to be working at cross-purposes instead of cooperating. It's as if great musicians were playing simultaneously in different keys.
It's likely the divergent styles were an artistic choice, not a matter of carelessness, that they're supposed to make audience members feel ill at ease in the world they're visiting. But it doesn't work.
There's plenty of power in Bradbury's play (which he adapted himself), and he offers plenty of ideas that resonate in the hours and days after final curtain. One idea in particular is an irony that's hard to miss: Bradbury's play tells us that only books cultivate imagination and freedom of thought, while passive entertainment stifles those things. Ponder that as you realize that you've just spent two-plus hours in a dark theater watching other people interpret a book for you.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at [email protected]