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Feel The Heat

Turning up the flames on Bradbury

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Ray Bradbury's prime motivation, when he wrote his dystopian Fahrenheit 451, was to prevent the horrific future he described so vividly from materializing. So it's more than a little disheartening to realize that in the 12 years since Children's Theatre last presented the sci-fi classic at their Morehead Street fantasy palace, the reality of American life has come closer to matching Bradbury's nightmarish vision.

Our freedoms are under attack from religious fanatics abroad. At home, the torchbearers who profess a noble mission of universal freedom are also the Philistines who continue to be proponents of multiple Constitutional amendments and reversals of Supreme Court decisions — all designed to curtail our freedoms.

The NEA and its chairman, Dana Gioia, are sounding the loudest Reading at Risk alarums, so we may seem far from the point where government suppresses independent thinking and torches all books. But as we're told in Bradbury's stage adaptation of his 1953 novel, it's the people's apathy toward reading that was the most decisive factor in the demise of books. So we're nearly halfway there.

Visual connections between the world of Fahrenheit and Charlotte 2005 are quickly short-circuited by Johann Stegmeir's surreal, color-starved scenic design. Our hero Montag's home is evoked by an ivory white entranceway and a couch where his wife Mildred pops pills and watches brain-dead interactive TV. The firehouse, where Montag plays cards between book-burning forays, is a simple steel table and chairs — backed by a solid black wall.

Not literally solid. Stegmeir apparently didn't exhaust the vast supply of trashcan liners that he used in his lugubrious design for Tales of Poe. So a black vinyl shower curtain rips across the proscenium each time we return to the firehouse. There's blackness everywhere, serving as backdrop for the spectral apparitions that float across the upstage: mostly homes harboring books but also Faber, the cowering bibliophile.

Stegmeir and stage director Alan Poindexter simply don't rise to the challenge of evoking a present or futureworld bedazzled by sports, large-screen TV and gadgets. Aside from two whirling red bulbs, 17 TV monitors flank the stage. But their payload is disappointing — hungry flames, a decorous daisy, white noise — and there is no attempt at videography when we encounter the boob tube fare that captivates Mildred and friends.

Nor is the mechanical attack hound invented by Montag and his schizoid mentor Beatty a frightening beast. Shuffling across the upstage at a turtle's pace, the skeletal Baskerville 9 won't be haunting many dreams.

Luckily, sound design guru Gary Sivak supplies the B-9 canine with a sharp, chomping mastiff yelp. One of the most gifted CT ensembles in recent years also comes to the rescue, adding meat — and bite — to Bradbury's dramatis personae during a lordly playing time of 105 minutes.

Longtime Poindexter cohort Mark Sutton gives a fascinating portrayal of Montag, his emotional evolution from book-burner to book-lover proceeding faster than his intellectual enlightenment. Perhaps we can empathize with this Montag sooner because Scott Helm projects the domineering brutishness of Beatty so forcefully, leaving his subversive erudition as a fierce undercurrent. Helm's Beatty has the towering power of an outraged intellect.

The women at the poles of Montag's existence are also excellently drawn. Claire Whitworth-Helm is lumpy and doltish as Mildred while Cody Harding is serene and slightly flirtatious as Clarisse, the free spirit who rouses the rebel lurking inside Montag. With deft touches of comedy and avuncular concern, Dennis Delamar makes the timorous Faber lovable.

It's only fair that I should extol Stegmeir's costumes. The fireman uniforms, in particular, lend a storm trooper aspect to the book-burning with their Darth Vader sleekness. Costumes of the escaped book lovers are pure inspiration. Each of them wears the book he or she has memorized.

Such a blazoning of the written word is totally at odds with this society's hermetic character. Yet somehow this fantastical concept works — and Faber's death, as a result, has an almost patriarchal sublimity. Then Montag's reunion with Clarisse - because her heart is truly on her sleeve — is more touching than any other version you're likely to see.

Once in awhile, a production like The Body Chronicles comes along and reminds you of the sheer transformative power of theater. There was nothing especially "cutting edge" about the four playlets, the short poem, the credo, and the slice of mime that producer Donna Scott so thoughtfully assembled and director Sheila Snow Proctor so coherently strung together.What was so magical at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center last week was that so many of the women who filled the house night after night were being exposed to the power of Charlotte theater for the first time. You could hear it in the talkback session that I attended on Thursday night from women who had just laughed at the comedy, thrilled to the affirmations, and empathized with the heartfelt testimonies.

To be sure, nobody was shortchanged at this powwow celebrating the vicissitudes women experience on the rocky road to positive self-image. The bevy of actresses assembled to deliver this beautifully modulated message was the real deal. Mostly the word was sent forth via comedy. The peak here was Julie Janorschke as the failed dieter in Mary Gallagher's "Chocolate Cake." Who else around can say "Hot fudge is for life!" with such authority?

Proctor spoke eloquently without words in "Silent Torture," simulating a working woman's 7am wake-up ritual, from bed to shower to mirror, in a gem plucked from The Kathy and Mo Show. This playful bawdiness was a perfect preamble to the intense climax of the evening, Madeline George's "The Most Massive Woman Wins," packing a trio of transfixing monologues delivered by Scott, Darlene Parker Black and Gina Stewart.

Pease Auditorium was filled to capacity last Saturday night for CPCC Opera's The Pirates of Penzance. Getting the walk-ups seated delayed the overture until 8:19, making a long, torturous evening even longer. Paolo Pacheco made for a passable Pirate King with his swarthy swagger, and Linnea Bixler was nothing less than electrifying as Mabel, negotiating the coloratura and the highest notes of "Poor Wandering One" with perfect aplomb.Otherwise, Gilbert & Sullivan were forced to traipse through dense thickets of unintelligible articulation, amateurish acting, and off-key singing to deliver their age-old wit and melody. Eventually they won out after an exhausting struggle, but both sustained serious wounds.

Individually, Sean Finnigan as the come-of-age hero Frederic was barely tolerable. With decrepitude built into her character, Linda Callahan was slightly more congenial as Frederic's nursemaid Ruth. Together, Finnigan and Callahan were lethal. Nobody in the polite audience ran out screaming during their duet, a testament to our fortitude.

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