Shouting Theater in a Crowded Firehouse

photo by Quasimondo Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

There are a lot of reasons why Celsius 232, the new play that opened last Friday,  is a momentous event. First, it’s the first full production by Quasimondo Physical Theatre—the most creative and ambitious theater company in town—in a year. Since being unceremoniously booted from their Grand Avenue space by new management (it remains empty to this day), they have been much missed. Next, it marks the debut of their new space, “The Milwaukee Arthaus,” the century-old firehouse in all it’s decrepit grandeur baptized, as it were, with live performance, after a year of tedious but necessary negotiations, permissions, gutting, cleaning, electrifying, and asbestos-removing labor (yes, the firehouse bell still works!). Then, it’s also the first creative collaboration between Quasimondo and Milwaukee’s other creator of original movement-based theater, Cooperative Performance. Finally, the companies have created a show that is entirely appropriate both for the setting and for the crazy-making times we’re living in: a free adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. The metricization of the title clues you that this might not be a straightforward adaptation—and indeed it is not. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, with its McCarthy-era intellectual panic, fear of truth-erasing totalitarianism, pop-culture know-nothings, coercive media distractions, pharmaceutical dependency and scary artificial intelligence, is relevant to—well, most of what’s going on in America these days.

But this one has clowns.

The two companies have pooled many of their strongest performers, while co-directors Brian Rott and Don Russell bring their respective strengths of movement and textual interpretation to create a performance that tells Bradbury’s fable with poetic richness and many layers of thematic complexity. The Arthaus performs well enough in it’s new life as a theater; it’s hardly the roughest venue the bohemian artists have ever played in. It’s dark, bare—and, on opening night, cold—but neat, and furnished with comfortable seating, affording everyone in the sold-out crowd a good view. The ambience suits the story; Bridget Cookson’s walls of ripped out book pages and functional pegs for the firemen’s gear, creates a sculptural yet functional setting. Meticulously-assembled costumes conjure early 60s sci-fi films. Russell’s sound design, consisting entirely of percussive beats, makes for a brutal, agit-prop mood. Movement sections are punctuated by dialog scenes and aria-like breaks of spoken word prose. The clown makeup is meticulously-wrought and customized to each performer, while Michael Pettit’s mechanical hound puppet, seemingly modeled after the defense department’s four-legged robot experiments, is a glittering, insectoid shard of nightmare fuel.

Most intriguing is the decision to cast the firemen (who in this future world are tasked with burning books, those repositories of corrosive ideas that cause people to question the truth and rightness of The Way Things Are) as clowns. Late in the play, their plastic noses, blink with the red and blue anything-but-funny lights of cop cars. The show’s funniest moment, a high-energy visitation of low-skilled emergency techs, is dark humor indeed, echoing dystopian satire from Kafka to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Fictional hell-worlds, like those flashing noses, are warning signals: the work of artists in their role as mirrors, chroniclers, and coal-mine canaries. The goal is not to cheer us up, leaving the theater with a smile on our lips and a song in our heart; a sick feeling in the gut is more like it. Bradbury said that the aim of stories like this isn’t to predict an evil future, but to prevent one.

In fact, this show, like the book, pushes back against anodyne, junk entertainment—hard. We watch Mildred, the fireman’s wife, nervously overdose on tranquilizers, thus needing the emergency blood change. (“We do ten of these a night!” chirps the unnaturally cheery medtech guy.) Mildred is also addicted to the inane interactive dramas she watches on the wall sized “parlor screens” that are status symbols in this weirdly familiar future. In a sensitive, subtle performance by Ben Ludwig, Mildred is more tragic than villainous, even when she turns her husband in for trying to make her read a book; like many human beings, she is caught between her desire for happiness and a mediated social system that offers only chaff and poison.

Ben Yela, effortlessly carrying the narrative as the fireman Guy Montag, walks the journey from unthinking professional thug awakening to inquisitiveness, catalyzed by an encounter with a free-spirited teen, played with disarming goofiness by Jessi Miller. “Are you happy?” she asks him—and that simple question sets off a chain reaction that puts him at odds with his job, his wife, and the whole world. The fireman clowns are all humanized, each with his or her distinct character as they perform stylized motions of their daily tasks. Only when they are menacing an illicit book-reader do they, in their long coats, oversized boots, and helmets, seem like the impersonal apparatus of the repressive state. The only completely frightening character is Montag’s supervisor Beatty, played with icy precision by Kirk Thomsen. Suspecting Montag of unsanctioned thinking, he questions him about his love for sports with the toxic cheerfulness of the alpha male. Later, he reveals himself to be the truest villain: the one who knows what’s in the books—as he demonstrates by quoting Alexander Pope by memory—but deems that the complexities therein threaten the social order.

photo by Quasimondo Theatre

At one point Yela’s Montag, to prove his bona fides as a book-hating patriot, rips a paperback copy of Fahrenheit 45 in half—which is pretty much what this show does. Now, Ray Bradbury had choice words for people who cut his work for any reason: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” What would he say, then, about the adapters’ choice to essentially rip out the book’s conclusion? Rather than following Montag to his discovery of a community of living books, committed to memorizing the great works of literature, and watching from the countryside as mushroom clouds purify civilization in nuclear fire, Celsius 232 ends with the bummer scene of the clowns taking off their costumes and collapsing into a sobbing mass, literalizing one character’s words to Montag: “Once you begin to think, you might not be happy about what you discover.” It brings to mind the first intellectual martyr, Socrates, who went around questioning everything and ended up being executed as a corrosive element to society. Does thinking really make us miserable and outcast? Is there any middle ground between the need for happiness and the search for truth?

Classical aesthetic theory holds that art should create a unified whole, with tension building to a resolution. In modern times, many artists decided that resolutions were phony at best and oppressive at worst (Bradbury himself was no great fan of modernity). Randall Munroe, genius and creator of the web comic xkcd, commented on this state of affairs in a recent cartoon: “When I was a kid, I just assumed that Jonah dies at the end of The Giver because the book had a medal on the cover and I knew grown-ups liked it when sad things happen at the end for no reason.” Withholding resolution smacks of the Theater of Cruelty. But for better or worse, it shifts the privilege—and the burden— of meaning-making onto us, the audience.

Then there are the clowns. The performers are totally committed to embodying these all-too-human creatures, and casting this dark fable as a clown show opens a door for compassion towards even the most ignorant members of society, yes, even them. In Rott’s style of clowning (there are styles of clowning now? Who knew?), a clown is a human animal, pared down to the childlike, instinctual core—kind of like Homer Simpson. Feeling rather than thinking, they are neither good nor evil, but are capable of doing either. Such unreflective beings are easily manipulated by con artists and despots; easy prey for mindless scams, vulnerable to distraction and likely to overindulge. They get sloppy drunk, are enraged by fake news, scoff at climate change but embrace conspiracy theories, go off on internet rants, drive oversized SUVs, tweet obsessively, shoot selfies, walk around with their faces glued to their smartphone screens, and readily believe that it’s “us” against “them.” They are everything that the traditions of humanism, religions, and tribal customs try to get us to not be. In general, they exhibit the fundamental narcissism that isn’t really that far from any one of us.

In the immortal words of The Firesign Theater: “I think we’re all bozos on this bus.”

Quasimondo Physical Theatre in collaboration with Cooperative Performance present

Celsius 232

playing through December 15