Addison — The audience’s anticipation for the stage incarnation of William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, peaks when they are met by a curtain pieced together from patches of parachute and cast-off clothing stretching from floor to the ceiling of WaterTower Theatre. The preshow sound begins to take on tones of aircraft disaster complete with pilot’s admonition and lights transitioning from the audience to stage revealing the cast standing individually, singing in school choir unison. Feelings of innocence and isolation and the tension between duty and disaster are all present in this one moment. But it won’t last.
If you are a fan of the novel, go no further.
This production of a stage adaption by Nigel Williams owes more to pop culture currents akin to apocalyptic fantasy like Mad Max: Fury Road or Lost than it does to Golding’s post-World War II societal examination of conscience. In fact, if you could add those shows together and stage them at a male strip club, you’d have a close approximation of the whole evening, six-pack abs and all.
Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi has her cast each pull down their own section of curtain individually one by one until a glimpse of the expansive island set is visible. If the feebleness of that reveal isn’t enough to ward you off your course, when Dan Schoedel’s lights come up, the tail of their presumably crashed airplane wiggles a little in an impotent attempt to seem like it just crashed. Most jarring of all is set designer Bradley Gray’s attempted realistic treatment of the island plants and topography that looks for all the world like a Wendy’s Frosty lava flow with Hobby Lobby ferns stuck in at regular intervals.
It’s not just the execution, but also the fundamental flaw in the theatrical imagination that is most worrisome. Television, movies and even video games present ever increasingly realistic and immersive experiences. The artistic high ground that theater retains is the potential for human intimacy combined with the expectation of audience imagination. For all their nimble special effects, other media can’t place a living, breathing human in front of us. At the same time, it’s required of us to imagine him somewhere, filling in the rest of his world. This approach with its plastic plants and lumpy rocks wrestles against the unwritten contract we agreed to when we crammed together in full view of one another. The more the production pursues “island,” the more they leave “human”—both actor and audience—behind.
Those familiar with the novel will remember the iconic characters of Ralph and Piggy. Henry Greenberg plays Ralph with a ready smile and sincere, if teasing, affability. It’s clear why he would emerge as a natural leader. Matthew Minor is more caricature than character of Piggy, the whiny, know-it-all. Minor is allowed to present Piggy as apologetic and pitiable. Though it plays on our sympathies, it takes the tension out of the play. Without Piggy’s famous attitude, the abuse he attracts seems less warranted. When Anthony Fortino arrives leading a choir and barking orders, it’s clear that his Jack has the ambition and aggression to rival Ralph. The competition between thinking and doing is set.
What unfolds, however, is a tumbling mass of role reversals and rivalries that pass inexplicably. Mitchell Stephens, as Roger, is able to give weight momentarily by glowering menacingly before allying with Jack, the more virile leader; but Kyle Montgomery, as Simon, is disregarded immediately by his fellows and we don’t know why. Montgomery may make all he can out of his role, but it is up to the director to tease out the intricacies of these shifts of power. Without marking them in the staging, the story ends up about boys behaving badly. When things get out of hand, they wonder what went wrong. Unfortunately, the audience is no wiser than middle-schoolers.
Though costume designer Sylvia Fuhrken tracks the descent from private school uniforms to native island warriors in her designs, the actors are revealed, figuratively and literally, to be too developed for their roles. Samuel Cress and Brandon Shreve as the audience favorite duo, Sam and Eric, keep their shirts on and our affections intact. When they succumb to ritualistic violence, we feel the juxtaposition with their youth. It’s appropriately uncomfortable. With the others, we lose sight of their boyhood in a grunting mass of stamping choreography and sound designer Kellen Voss’ tasteless island tom-toms. By the time they are rubbing pig blood on their pecs, more thoughtful themes have been abandoned. The climactic violence, then, comes as foregone conclusion.
Without knowledge of the novel, the production passes as a violent indulgence: bloody manliness. Golding’s haunting contemplation of a humanity that could exterminate 60 million of its own needn’t apply; but considering the opportunity, couldn’t it?