The ART’s indie-rock musical, Futurity (runs through next weekend), is indicative of one trend at the Loeb/Oberon that I’m happy about. And that’s putting the ART Institute (the ART’s graduate school for theater) students on mainstage, rather than keeping them tucked away doing unpublicized shows in the Loeb blackbox, when HRDC isn’t using it. It’s an incredible pool of talent (and important, with the ART’s old company basically dismantled) that, unfortunately, tends to skip town after graduating. The ART has more or less put their students to work, featuring them regularly in The Donkey Show, as well as in recent productions like Alice vs. Wonderland and The Snow Queen–an all-Institute production that served as the ART’s family-friendly 2011 Christmas show.
And while the founding members of The Lisps, the band behind Futurity, who star in the show aren’t without stage experience, the best performances comes from the Institute students with second billing: Milia Ayache, Matthew Christian, Liza Dickinson, and Teri Gamble, who play members of the show’s hipsterfied rag-tag Civil War regiment. While the music is pretty good and the production is visually interesting (if techno-punk is your thing), the writing and lead performances are…well, what you’d expect from a band. They’ve basically taken big themes like war and science and run them through an Instagram filter. And like so many over-processed photos of sneakers and plates of pasta, the show’s intellectual penetration of its subject matter goes about as far as the pre-song banter at a pop concert.
At its core, Futurity revolves around a conflict between romance and science. Would-be inventor Julian (Cesar Alvarez) corresponds with Ada Lovelace (Sammy Tunis) about the design of a mechanical computer that, he believes, can end war. (Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on a real 19th Century mechanical computer and was, aptly, the daughter of Romantic icon Lord Byron.) Much of the play takes this epistolary form and Julian’s naïve passion begins to rub off on Lovelace, who’s portrayed here as a kind of repressed romantic.
While Julian’s fate plays out on Civil War battlefields, Lovelace faces her own battle back in England. And it’s an odd one. The Lovelace plot is a skewed version of the conventional story of an independently minded Victorian woman battling social convention. Lovelace’s mother, Lady Byron (Ann Gottlieb) encourages her daughter’s scientific pursuits rather than trying to squeeze her into a corset. But, she discourages Ada’s participation in Julian’s romantic, fanciful notions of what a mechanical computer could do. In fact, Lady Byron appears to have quite a head for numbers herself, and tries to push her daughter into convention with lines like “these equations do not balance.” A little silly, yes. There’s also a “Society of Scientists.” And the computer, dubbed the “Steam Brain,” which is a centerpiece of the set and an enclosure for, and extension of, the drum kit, is built from junk yard parts in a fanciful techno-punk aesthetic, rather than with the precision Lovelace speaks of.
And I suppose that’s all because Futurity takes place in a kind of surreality of selvedge heritage wear and nostalgic iPhone photo filters. A place where the idiosyncrasies of a 19th Century inventor mimic those of an (intensively creative and spacey) 21st century musician. And ideas erupt, like in stream of consciousness liner notes prose. I may have misheard some of the lyrics, but I swear I picked up references to Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity and the Big Bang.
All that said, Futurity does take an interesting angle on things. It gives the computer a romantic context by going back to a time before people really understood computers…before they were associated with cold, analytical calculation. I wonder what Julian would have thought of the computer in the great Cold War sci-fi thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project, which awakes from its intended purpose as a machine of (Cold) war to not only end war, but solve all of humanity’s problems. But it only does this by making tyrannical demands with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Today, we can imagine the cost of a digital peace, but for Julian, without an understanding of the technology that might deliver it, that cost is a non-issue.
While the Spencer repeating rifles in Futurity do work, Julian’s Steam Brain does not and its demise merges, quite poetically, with the the fate of Julian and his regiment on the battlefield. A tragedy yes, but peace by mechanical computer never seemed too likely in the first place.