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A CurtainUp Review
By Joyce Friedland
Readers and now playgoers are either staunch supporters or avid nay-sayers to Rand's glorified individualism: no middle-of-the roaders here. Audience members seemed to have come to the play seeking a confirmation of their polarized views.
Ayn Rand wrote Anthem in 1937, prior to the novels for which she became most famous &mdash Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Although this work is shorter and less complex than her later works, it lays out her philosophy as an easily understood parable. Over the years, it has become a "beginners" Ayn Rand, and a point of reference for today's libertarians.
To be fair to Anthem, the play, I've attempted to wipe the slate clean of the book's political innuendo and assess the work as a play on its own merits and shortcomings. Jeff Britting, who is the curator of the Ayn Rand Archives in Irvine, California, adapted the novel for the stage, composed the background music, and produced the filmed images that are projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. The music and the filmed images are striking and serve to heighten the drama. In fact, they could stand alone as an art installation. Developed as background, they sometimes take center stage.
The plot takes us to a dystopian future world where the word "I" is a criminal offense. At first, the central character, Equality 7-2521, played effectively by Matthew Lieff Christian, is shown risking his life by being alone in a tunnel he has discovered, using a candle to write and then proclaim his own thoughts. He suspects that there was once a world where individual thought and action were permitted, unlike his present one where all actions have to be corroborative and accessible to the masses.
In this world where all thoughts have been "dumbed-down" and all actions are controlled by government decree, Equality falls in love with Liberty 5-3000, played by the beautiful and spirited Sofia Lauwers. They proclaim their union in defiance of the law, which propels them to act upon their own needs and desires, will ultimately benefit all of society.
Britting has remained true to the tone, cadence and language of the book, with the characters speaking in voices that sound almost biblical. In preserving so much of the language of the book, Britting has risked creating a play that may be too "talky" for contemporary audiences.
There is little action in this relatively simple parable that asks the playgoer to compare the depressing world in which Equality finds himself to a future world in which individualism will return. Rand's warning that individual accomplishment and human happiness will cease if the world continues to spiral toward communal action and total equality is repeatedly evoked in this adaptation. The fine acting, the musical background, and the filmed imagery on the screen help to offset the repetition and sometimes heavy-handedness of the message.
I doubt whether this play is going to change anyone's mind about the value of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Both sides will probably dig deeper into their own opinions. But Anthem can promote conversation that will illuminate contemporary politics and different paths leading to human happiness.