The first thing to be said about the New Village Arts production of The Lord of the Flies is that North County should be proud of its rich tradition of developing young theatre artists. There’s a lot of talent evident among the eleven boys and young men on stage. Unfortunately, the second thing to be said is that it’s a shame that such talent is mostly wasted in a production that only scratches the surface of this rich story.
William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, was published in Britain in 1954. The immediate possibility of nuclear war was very much in the public consciousness, and the post-World War II era in Britain was characterized by anxiety about the sort of society that might emerge as the societal discipline necessary for engaging a proximate enemy fell away as the “enemy” became a more abstract concept, one that felt less proximate, at least.
Golding’s book imagined a group of boys cast away to a deserted island in the midst of a concentrated battle, most likely a nuclear one. Initially, the boys sought to maintain good order and discipline, but their efforts broke down. By the time they were rescued, most of the boys had been reduced to savages, and two of them had been killed.
The Lord of the Flies was certainly a product of its time – British, grounded in the single-sex education system of the day that emphasized rule-following and obedience to leadership, and anxious about how the next generation would be able to follow in the footsteps of the “greatest generation.”
But, Golding’s novel, his most famous and likely the reason he won the Nobel Prize for literature, is more than a product of its time. Its lessons about peer pressure, bullying, the nature of leadership and moral formation – as well as the variety of ways of claiming manhood – are relevant to boys and young men of every generation. But, if a production is going to ignore the period and societal milieu in which the story is set in favor of emphasizing these more universal themes it needs to be clear about what it’s doing.
Here’s where the New Village Arts production falls flat on its face. While claiming to focus on universality, the production fails to demonstrate that universality, leaving it to the audience to discern – or not. Moreover, limitations in the staging create confusion and dulls the impact of the most dramatic moments.
First, the production is set in current times, and the costume design (by Kate Bishop) emphasizes contemporary clothes that North County suburban youth might wear. Doing so gives the impression that the cast might have wandered out of the Carlsbad branch of Cold Stone just prior to boarding a plane that ends up crashing on a deserted island. There is little of the anxiety with which Mr. Golding’s characters are imbued – and certainly no anxiety that these youth may not be fit to become the next generation of leaders. They have their squabbles, but so what about that?
Second, there’s no explanation for the war that seems to be going on. When bombs explode in the sky, one wonders what is happening, but the lights are ignored. When Simon (Aaron Acosta) finds human remains hanging from a parachute in a tree, there’s also no explanation (and, this point is easy to miss, as it comes as part of a particularly chaotic scene).
Third, the events that lead to moral decay and murder are presented rather matter-of-factly, as if “these things happen.” The deaths are dramatic moments, but the characters seem to move on as if no one was really culpable for these actions. When Ralph (Jonah Gercke), the putative leader, breaks down, his grief seems to be more about his own failure to remain in control than about anything else that has gone on. It almost seems as though the cast is replicating an episode of “Survivor” where the greatest penalty is to be voted off the island.
Many of these problems might have been fixed had the cast been encouraged to find reactions to the events of the play, rather than just to play the scenes as presented. For the most part, each performer has found an attitude or “type” and has maintained characterization at that level. While nuance is something actors develop over time, its lack makes the cast seem to be part of a blob, as opposed to a collective of unique and interesting individuals.
Who to blame? I don’t really know, but I can identify a couple of likely culprits. One is Kelly Kissinger, who debuts at NVA as set designer, and whose design promotes confusion about what spaces on the stage represent what spaces on the island. Justin Lang’s direction is competent enough technically, but the missed opportunities I’ve noted are ultimately his responsibility. On the other hand, Ms. Bishop’s costumes, outside of the street clothes, are eye-catching, and veteran designers Christopher Renda (lighting design), Matt Lescault-Wood (sound design) and George Yé (fight choreography) all contribute professional-level work.
The talents of the cast (who, besides Mr. Acosta and Mr. Gercke, include Jordi Bertran, Josh Bradford, David Coffey, Ben Ellerbrock, Gabe Krut, Anton Maroun, Josh Tremain, Tanner Vidos, and Jewels Weinberg – along with adult actor Dan Windham, who appears briefly at the end of the play) deserved better than this production gave them.