Boys Will Be Boys

Beck Center's Lord of the Flies is a livelier abridgment than Cliffs Notes, but not by much.

Lord of the Flies Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood Through November 17, 216-521-2540.
The boys of Beck Center shine in challenging roles.
The boys of Beck Center shine in challenging roles.

If your primary memory of Lord of the Flies was slumping bleary-eyed at your desk while your ninth-grade English teacher droned on about how man is inherently evil and the island is a microcosm, then take comfort: Beck Center's dramatized version is probably a more gratifying approach to William Golding's heavy-handed faux fable than anything that went down in those rote lectures.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the stage adaptation of this summer-reading classic -- in which stranded British youth struggle for power and battle evil -- just doesn't make the grade. Although Golding once worked as an actor and cites the Greek dramatists as his greatest influence, Flies isn't nearly as successful a novel-to-stage redux as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (another recent Beck Center offering). That show had bold, politically charged ideas that translated well to the theater; unfortunately, this one leaves you feeling numb instead of rattled. As one audience member put it: "Why do I feel like I should be getting more out of this than I am?"

Flies' failure to deliver an agitprop punch is all the more frustrating because a tale about diplomacy versus savagery is even more timely today than when Golding penned it during the Cold War. There is a defining scene, early in the play, when the boys vote on who will lead them while they're on the island. The candidates are Ralph, who calls meetings to order with a conch shell (symbol of civility and rational discourse, you'll remember), and Jack, who advocates a stab-pigs-first-ask-questions-later approach. This could serve as an eerie echo of today's headlines: The boys elect Ralph and diplomacy, but the seeds of war and future devolution have already taken root.

Of course, we hardly need to be smacked on the head with blatant symbolism about impending war. But the play would have benefited from downplaying the moments in which the boys maraud and highlighting those in which they struggle directly with evil. The scene in which Simon hallucinates a dialogue with the Lord of the Flies is a pivotal moment in the book; onstage, however, it gets lost in the shuffle.

Although the overall effort misses its mark, Flies -- which takes a considerable risk in casting actual children in these parts -- offers a brilliant cast in wickedly challenging roles. It's a major task to pull together 12 competent adult actors on one stage, never mind finding a solid group of age-appropriate boys who can master British accents and stage combat routines.

Gabe Geschke is perfectly cast as the pasty and phlegmatic Piggy -- so much so that it seems possible the Beck Center staff raised him in captivity on a steady diet of crumpets and Dickens, refusing him sunlight and an inhaler in preparation for this role. Alex Wyse is also effective as good guy Every Lad Ralph; his breakdown at the end of the play, as he fully assimilates the lessons learned on the island, is chillingly cathartic. (The production would have benefited from more moments of such ringing clarity.) Scott Esposito embodies the novel's physical description of Jack, the nancy-boy choir leader turned alpha-male badass, and the actor's performance reveals a promising grasp of craft. But throughout he seems too nice; it's not clear if this kid ever quite got in touch with his inner savage.

The design elements are slick and technically solid, but could have been amped up a notch to provide some sensory juice. There isn't enough contrast between the look of the first act, when the boys are making a go at civilized order, and the second act, when they've completely descended into mayhem.

One set piece, however, is not only intrusive but unintentionally silly: the pig head on a stake that serves as one of the novel's central metaphors. This Dali-meets-decoupage effort is less evocative of Satan than Porky; it'd be more fitting as a piñata at Marilyn Manson's Cinco de Mayo party than an onstage representation of the human impulse to kill. In any event, it didn't quite evoke the frightening immediacy of the novel's theme -- a problem shared, unfortunately, by the entire production.

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