By Pat Launer
Bombs are dropping in the background as a plane crashes on a remote Pacific island. The only survivors are young boys, adolescents and pre-adolescents alone in a lush, uninhabited place. There are wild pigs abroad, and there may be a beast. There’s also an immediate power struggle, between rational, well-intentioned Ralph and violent, tyrannical Jack. In short order, a group of schoolkids at liberty devolves into a bloodthirsty, murderous tribe.
“Lord of the Flies,” the first novel by Nobel Prize-winner William Golding, wasn’t a huge success when first published in 1954. But over time, it has become a classic, repeatedly named in the top 100 of Best Novels lists. The title, which comes from the Biblical Book of Kings, is a direct translation of Beelzebub.
The story was filmed in 1963 and again in 1990. In 1996, English novelist/playwright Nigel Williams created a stage adaptation, currently in production at New Village Arts in Carlsbad, under the direction of Justin Lang. The boys are played by an ensemble of young but experienced actors, ranging in age from 11 to 17.
In all its forms, the drama is bone-chilling. It shows how easy it is for civilization to break down, for the beast in all of us to emerge. Many adults in literature (and life) have “gone native,” descending into a primitive state, and often, into savagery. Here, it’s young boys run amok. We see the fragility of free will, and the battle between rational and emotional responses to fear, both real and imagined. The tension between individualism, the common good and groupthink is explored. In the right circumstances, goodness and morality readily give way to barbarity and depravity.
In the New Village Arts version, these are American students, which makes a few of the play’s locutions awkward, and eliminates the class distinctions so evident in English society and so crucial to some of the relationships.
From the outset, there’s a potent leadership rivalry between Ralph (benign Jonah Gercke, who collapses spectacularly at the end) and Jack (David Coffey, excellent and frightening throughout). This Piggy (Ben Ellerbrock), though a font of intellectual ideas and the voice of social convention, isn’t very fat, doesn’t often stutter and lacks the evidence of his lower-class, lesser-educated background. Aaron Acosta is aptly other-worldly as the oracular Simon, and as Jack’s hatchet-man, Roger, Tanner Vidos displays sadistic ferocity. The rest of the boys get minimal time in the spotlight. They follow one leader or the other, they engage in the violent tribal dance, with its escalating chant, “Kill the pig, spill his blood.” (The story goes that, during the filming of Peter Brooks’ largely improvised 1963 movie, when the cameras stopped rolling, the boys wouldn’t stop their menacing revelry).
The production, beautifully designed (Kelly Kissinger) and lit (Chris Renda), with evocative sound (Matt Lescault-Wood), features many intense and heart-stopping moments. And yet, the pace feels sluggish (the two intermissions don’t help) and the final scene, when an adult Naval Officer appears, falls flat. He should be more appalled (the allegorical tale was intended to show a shocking and unthinkable breakdown of British civility), and it should be alarming when the Officer establishes the ‘story’ that will be told of their survival ordeal: it was all just a game. Only Ralph acknowledges the nightmarish loss of innocence. But it all happens so fast that the force of the dénouement is diminished.
Still, despite a few flaws and weaknesses, the story remains potent and unnerving. Kudos to the cast for their commitment to the decadence.
- “Lord of the Flies” runs through May 3 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad
- Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets ($30-$33) are available at 760-433-3245 or online at www.newvillagearts.org
- Running time: 2 hrs. (including 2 intermissions)
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.