BRAVE NEW WORLD: David Rogers’ adaptation from the novel by Aldous Huxley
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Quill Theatre at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Rd., Glen Allen, VA 23060
Performances: February 2-17, 2018
Ticket Prices: Tickets $28 Regular; $15 for Students (with valid ID)
Info: (804) 261-ARTS or quilltheatre.org
It’s no surprise that Quill Theatre would consider Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World as appropriate source material for the current season. After all, as Production Manager James Ricks pointed out at Sunday afternoon’s audience talkback, there is a resurgence of a national discourse, of talking points about truth and fact (what we now call “fake news”), scientific truth (the CDC was recently issued a list of forbidden words), emotional truth (can there be any compromise between white supremacists and all those whose existence they would deny). The question was asked, why is this an Acts of Faith Festival offering? That’s self-explanatory. Our beliefs, what we value, our gods or lack thereof, our idols (in this case, Ford, which forges links with technology and conveniently rhymes with Lord) provide logical points of departure for discussions of faith. Brave New World offers an entry point for comparative discourse on the hard topics that should be discussed.
Another albeit more lightweight reason this is a choice for Quill is that one of the main characters, John (Caleb Wade), communicates largely through Shakespearean quotations. Ironically, John is considered a savage in Huxley’s dystopian world, where babies are genetically manufactured, workers are cloned in factories, hypnopedia or sleep-training is the preferred method of socialization, and the government distributes happy pills to every citizen.
The problem with this production (well, actually, there is more than one) is that David Rogers’ 1970 adaptation o Huxley’s novel and the Quill staging, directed by Maggie Roop, whose work I admire tremendously, works better as a book than it does on stage. As fascinating and as timeless as the story may be, and as strong as the cast may be, both individually and collectively, the first act drags, and I found it difficult to fully engage.
Quill is adept at placing actors in multiple roles. They have, after all, successfully staged the complete works of William Shakespeare with just two actors. Brave New World, the play, was written for 19 men, 13 women, and three children, or 14 men and 9 women with some in multiple roles. Quill staged the production with a cast of 11, composed of six men and five women. The result of this paring down was that at times it was difficult to tell who was playing which character when, and it didn’t help that the entire cast wore uniforms: silver-gray pants and shirts or burgundy dresses, both topped by awkward little epaulet capelets.
On the positive side, I appreciated the gender-neutral casting of Lucretia Anderson as Mustapha, the Resident World Controller. Michael Oppenheimer initially held out a promise of change in this totalitarian society as the rebellious Alpha+ male Bernard, but when given a taste of power, he caved in. Alex Wiles as the beautiful Lenina remained steadfastly committed to the program and the emotion deadening effects of the government supplied narcotic, soma. Caleb Wade brought a welcome intrusion into this world as the so-called savage, John, with his curiosity and literary worldview, and his shirtless second act was the highlight of the show for some. The cast also included Joseph Bromfield, Axle Burtness, Christopher Dunn, Rachel Hindman, Jacqueline Jones, Jimmy Mello, and Nicole Morris-Anastasi.
Mary Sader’s austere faux stone set was simple and attractive, but during the first act I was distracted by my view of an unpainted support that was clearly visible from my seat on the far left of the auditorium. At the start of the second act, a member of the stage crew pulled the curtains to meet the edges of the set, solving the problem. James Ricks’ sound design included an electronic effect that sounded a lot like an Australian didgeridoo, which was simultaneously evocative and unfortunately hegemonic for the scenes involving John and the residents of the compound where New World residents would occasionally vacation in order to experience the primitive past.
Rogers adapted Huxley’s novel, and Quill made a few more adaptions. Originally set in futuristic 26th century London, the production was free of English accents or any geographical references. When Bernard decided to vacation in New Mexico, there was no indication how far it might be from where he started, or even if it was in another country. The production chose to call the undeveloped areas compounds rather than reservations and also downplayed Huxley’s emphasis on sexuality and required participation in orgies, while adding a snake-handling scene near the end.
I suspect that the theatrical experience might be quite different for those who read and remember the novel, those who read it decades ago in high school (if it was allowed), and those who never read it at all. This is a production that the cast seemed to enjoy immensely. Axle Burtness indicated during the talkback that it was exciting to be immersed in Brave New World because of the lack of realism. Unfortunately, as an audience member, I was not able to attain that level of immersion and felt a bit left out. In a Brave New World, I would probably be a candidate for exile to an island. Thank Ford!
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Quill Theatre promotional photos