To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker-writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday’s performance of FUTURITY by the Lisps. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
There’s a wonderful moment near the beginning of FUTURITY that finds mathematician Ada Lovelace drawing an outline of herself on a chalkboard filled with equations and formulas, as she shares her first correspondence with Julian Munro, a Civil War soldier with dreams of bringing about peace through creation rather than destruction. The moment poignantly epitomizes one of the many themes in the musical: the humanity of science, and the place of humanity within science.
These two main characters are played by Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez, two members of the Brooklyn-based band the Lisps, and Friday’s performance was just the second outside of its debut at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Over the past four years, the band and a number of the cast members played and workshopped sections of the musical at various bars, but the three-night performance run at the Walker was the first time the show had traveled. The music and lyrics were written by Alvarez, in collaboration with the Lisps, while 10 additional cast members (four of whom came from the Twin Cities and, incredibly, learned the show in a week) joined them on-stage.
To briefly summarize: The fictional Julian Munro, a Union soldier, begins a correspondence with the historically real Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, about his idea of a machine that can create peace, called the “Steam Brain.” His ideas are partially inspired by Lovelace’s work on Charles Babbage’s analytical machine, regarded by many as the first computer. Their correspondence and collaboration, not to mention their love, grows with more intensity as Julian and his regiment prepare for battle, while Ada must fight her own kind of battle with her mother (played by Anna Gottlieb), who only has one rule for her daughter after she took her away from the irresponsible Lord Byron: that she does not dream. Yet the Steam Brain, a machine that can solve all the problems of human strife, is perhaps the greatest dream of all.
There are so many themes running through FUTURITY: the reality and the consequences of technological progress, war and peace, the meaning and material of intelligence, the absolute necessity (and also potential dangers of) imagination, and the equally absolute necessity of love. It had multiple parallel metaphors of connection, be it rivers, railroads, or equations, but always with an aesthetic quality to it, a core of art and creativity within each of these, best expressed by Lovelace when she sings about the “song that equations sing.”
Each of the show’s 17 songs could use its own analysis for the way they weave together these themes, but what’s most remarkable about FUTURITY is that these ideas didn’t come across as the clichés they so often do (not just in musicals, but in so much American media), but neither did they come across as opaque, philosophical abstractions. It was certainly philosophical, but without becoming dogmatic or simplistic in its view of technology, avoiding the good/evil binary of, say, Koyaanisqatsi. It was utopian, but without being fanciful or too hippie. There was an immediacy and a sincerity to both the reality of these questions, but also their stakes, and yet the show offered no easy answers.
The show’s set seemed to mirror the complexity of these questions. Every square inch of the McGuire stage was covered. While some shows I’ve seen approximated this amount of gear, it’s usually just on the floor, and it’s usually electronic, things like instruments at rest and laptops and cords and pedals. FUTURITY, however, took up most of the stage’s space vertically. The centerpiece was the “Steam Brain,” which had at its core a steampunk Neil Peart drum set designed and played with machine-like precision and Animal-like joy by the Lisps’ Eric Farber. While not the dimensions of the Steam Brain described in the show (80 feet tall, 100 yards around, and heavy as a ton), it was easily the biggest thing I’ve ever seen on the McGuire stage. Beyond the standard drums and cymbals, there were things like buckets, film reels, light bulbs, chains, pulleys, radiator grills, all sorts of gears, bells, and even a trombone slide attached. There was no added digital sound, and nothing electronic on-stage except for pickups and microphones. (At one point, Milia Ayache, who played the soldier Miles, took a swig of water from a Mason jar, which could have equally functioned as part of the Steam Brain set.)
There’s so much more to be said about FUTURITY. If you missed the Walker’s performances, you can still get a flavor of the piece: the band is going to release an album of the musical (funded with a successful Kickstarter last year).