'Bradbury' Navigates Reality and Fantasy

Neil P. Herriot

Jonah C. Priour ’09 (back), Jon E. Gentry ’07, and Carolyn A. McCandish ’07 deliver strong performances in “To the Chicago Abyss,” the second half of “Bradbury and Beyond.” “Bradbury” ran this past weekend in the Loeb Ex.

Visions of a bleak future tend to fall into one of two categories: the sleek, soulless, machine-driven version, or the post-apocalyptic, totalitarian version. Both styles of dystopia got an airing in “Bradbury and Beyond,” which ran at the Loeb Experimental Theatre from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. The performance, which was produced by Sarah E. Stein ’08 and directed by Marielle E. Woods ’08, adapted two short stories by Ray Bradbury: “The Veldt” and “To the Chicago Abyss.”

The director’s note indicated that the goal of putting these two stories together was to illuminate the impact of technology on society—or, as the creatively adapted “turn-off-your-cell-phones” warning succinctly stated, “Technology’s a bitch.” However, the stories—and their juxtaposition—work most interestingly as an examination of fantasy and reality. “The Veldt,” in which a virtual-reality playroom takes over the lives of a family, and “To the Chicago Abyss,” about a man who remembers the past before an unstated cataclysm when doing so is a crime against the state, showed two sides of the imagination and its power.

“The Veldt” centers on the newest gee-whiz gadget that an overworked father of the “Father Knows Best” ilk (Jonah C. Priour ’09) gets for his parentally-neglected kids (Carolyn A. McCandlish ’07 and Zachary B. S. Sniderman ’09): a playroom which perfectly reproduces any place one could wish to go. It comes to represent the children’s resentment toward their parents, eventually allowing their emotions to take murderous form, despite the worries of their mother (Victoria J. Crutchfield ’10) and the intervention of a psychiatrist (Mark D. Hoadley ’07), who examines the room more than the children.

Much of the story of “The Veldt” takes place inside the playroom, with invisible landscapes and, often, only partially-visible actors. It is to the credit of the production that this state of affairs was, for the most part, not a problem. The room itself, designed by Todd Weekly, was constructed of translucent paper panes that allow shadows to be seen within, and was lit brilliantly by Ellie M. M. Campisano ’08 to reflect its imaginary scenes.

The rest was up to the actors, who gracefully pulled off the sometimes awkwardly-written descriptions of what they saw—Bradbury, whose own theatrical adaptations are used here, could have given more consideration to how his similes sound in actual speech. In particular, Priour’s shortsighted enthusiasm contrasted nicely with Sniderman’s adolescent bitterness, and both Sniderman and McCandlish were wonderfully ghoulish in the final scene.

“To the Chicago Abyss” also featured an extensive and dangerous imagination, but here the danger was to the shadowy totalitarian state that rules a shattered future America. A few short, straightforward scenes feature an old man (Jon E. Gentry ’07, who is remarkable) talking about his memories: types of fruit, cigarette brands, and so on, to anyone whose path he crosses. Doing so makes him an accidental revolutionary, because to recall the past is to be dissatisfied with the present, at least in this world.

“To the Chicago Abyss” was much more powerful than “The Veldt,” in large part because its rambling imaginary scenes were the point, rather than a distraction in the service of a storyline. The latter play successfully evoked a regretful, fraught atmosphere, rather than simply making a point, as “The Veldt” did. Even though the characters are miserable, feel sympathy for them, while sympathy is in short supply in “The Veldt.” “To the Chicago Abyss” was more of a meditation than a story, and Woods wisely reflects that by stylizing the action to a large degree.

“Bradbury and Beyond” presented a world in which privation left nothing but imagination, and one in which luxury and alienation had twisted it into something vicious. Pick your poison—both were strangely enjoyable.

—Crimson staff reviewer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at bloomber@fas.harvard.edu