In an interview with Tony Kushner that took place when his landmark play in two parts, Angels in America, had just opened in Los Angeles, he talked about the genesis of the idea for AA. It was the 1980s and he was living in New York City. The time and circumstances of his personal life had brought a specific set of themes to his attention, front and center: the AIDS epidemic and sexual identity, the role of his Jewish heritage and community, and the American religious phenomenon that is Mormonism. As unconnected as that list appears, he wanted to weave all of them together into a play that used those concepts to forge a much larger story. His success at achieving that has been well documented.
Assembling a cohesive and memorable work of art from a panoply of unexpected themes is ambitious and a bit daunting. It is easier to take one core idea and let it unfold. But when the assemblage approach comes together, the results can be unexpectedly fresh and surprisingly provocative. Futurity, a play with music (I can’t bring myself to call it a “musical”, a term I view as denigrating when applied to serious theater—that being my own prejudice, admittedly) currently being presented by American Rep in Cambridge, is an exploration into that theatrical genre of idea assemblage. Set at the time of the Civil War, the play interweaves narratives of science fact/science fiction imaginings, war, technological utopianism and American roots music. Factual and fictional characters come together and include Lord Byron‘s real life daughter Ada Lovelace, a brilliant young woman who worked with Charles Babbage in thinking through the genesis of computational technology. There is the overarching theme of building a computational prototype, a “steam brain,” that can couple human intelligence and technology to bring the end to war. Part H. G. Wells, part Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, part Red Badge of Courage and part adventuresome and slightly wacky indie-rock opera, Futurity has a lot to recommend it.
The creative team behind the production is César Alvarez and the The Lisps, a “band” by some accounts but more accurately self-described as a “public/performative version of all the relationships you are struggling with.” The members of that creative matrix are well suited at blending music with theatricity. While produced in collaboration with an impressive crew of theatrical talents—Molly Rice cowrote the book and award-winning Sarah Benson directed it—the production still feels like a work in progress however. But works in progress are OK too. The hope is they will continue in their process of being honed, polished and tightened.
A few words about the production from director Sarah Benson:
Futurity is about that power of the imagination to transcend our human frailties and limitations. If war is a failure of the imagination, Futurity asks us to challenge or assumptions and invest in the imagination, our “steam brain” enabling us to think beyond our own perspective and create new possible worlds.
Technology makes real these new worlds. It enables us to realize the imaginary, and as yet, what seems impossible.
And from co-writer Molly Rice:
What was most exciting was that the band was both outside and inside the story. They were never not a band, but never not the characters they played, either…And the mere fact that a band from Brooklyn sought to tell the tale of a “peace machine” made by a Civil War solider/inventor and an unsung Victorian lady scientist? Who also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter? I wanted to work on that…
In part the piece is about the hidden similarities between seemingly different things, like science, art and war; math, mechancis, and music. And something about about the piece beckoned many disciplines to collide inside of it, from visual art to dance to sonic invention.
Futurity runs through April 15 at the Oberon Theater.