The Futurity is a Musicality
You know that feeling when you see a show and really like it and that sensation of having been deeply into it is somehow intangible, not easily rendered into text – it’s more of an encompassing engagement, a spell almost? And then you sit down several days later and try to figure out the ingredients of the spell, and it seems like maybe you should just leave the magic alone after all, because – you know – speaking the incantation out loud can be dangerous, amateurs shouldn’t mess around with it. Other dangerous things that come to mind: Time Travel, fighting in the Civil War, Science Fiction when in Service of the Theatrical, Utopic Ideas, and the act of writing about Futurity, a new “avant-Americana” musical playing at the Connelly Theater through November 15. (Okay, it’s not that writing about it is dangerous, per se – I just don’t want to risk breaking the spell.)
‘Musical’ is perhaps not the best category when filing Futurity, though, if you have a filing cabinet for such things. The promotional postcard that you receive in the mail if you happen to be on either Soho Rep or Ars Nova’s mailing list also describes the show as a ‘concert-story,’ which is intriguing but doesn’t entirely capture the essence of the thing. More than anything else, I’d call it an actively-and-imaginatively-engaged musical enchantment born from an indie-folk rock album and then vividly and transcendently rendered and performed as a theatrical event. But that probably wouldn’t fit on the postcard.
The central idea (around which the show operates): there’s a Civil War soldier (fictional) named Julian Munro, played by César Alvarez, who is really into science fiction. He cold-contacts Ada Lovelace (non-fictional, the daughter of Lord Byron and a notable math genius, played by Sammy Tunis) via letter from the front line with an invention that he thinks she might be into – a computing machine, designed by mathematics, free from base animal instinct, that would be capable of showing humanity a way forward and ultimately would create peace. After explaining that such a machine would need to have the capacity for imagination and a few back-and-forths as to why it doesn’t seem possible for a machine to “think,” Ada responds, “You raise a question not likely to be answered in our lifetimes, and impractical beyond belief.” Julian: “Is an impractical question worth pursuing?” Ada: “If it contains something poetical, I suppose.”
Futurity, then, functions as a (poetical but less impractical than you might think) musical enactment and engagement around this question/idea. Formally, it has the appearance of simplicity, in that two main characters exist (Julian and Ada) and pursue a plan – to create a peace machine, later named, in perhaps a regrettable branding moment on the part of Julian while appearing in front of the Society of Scientists, the “Steam Brain.” Julian is also, as previously mentioned, a Civil War soldier, marching his way towards possible death and disaster. Ada is less at risk, just sort of hanging out in high society and responding to Julian’s letters, and as a result it doesn’t seem to be her story – it’s even possible to read the whole event as a fantasy taking place in Julian’s mind, a means to transcend the dirty work of war by imagining an alternate reality wherein peace has at least the possibility of existing. It’s Julian’s progression that moves the work forward, sideways, here and there and everywhere; but it’s not the point, I don’t think. His narrative track is more a condition created in order to explore the bigger implausible – what if there was a machine that could create peace?
Within that exploration, which takes place mostly through the staging and delivery of the songs (of which there are twenty-two), complexities arise. Set, as it is, during the Civil War, there are a number of lyrical and textual references to slavery. The General, a supplementary character played with rigor and heart by Karen Kandel, addresses the troupes (or perhaps the audience): “…Let’s not over-estimate the spoils of war. For when this war is many years gone, I will still be fighting. I will still shiver in the long shadow of that terrible idea. That my body is a material to be traded.” This line of thought and act of speech provides a counter-balance to the show’s more broadly utopian ‘no more war’ sentiment, and allows what might at first appear easy and didactic to become more complex – one’s personal alignment gets messed up. Do I, as a person, really believe that the world would be a better place if there was no more war? Aren’t there certain wars worth fighting, even if destruction is the result? And even if not, are we really okay with the idea of the future, utopia or no, being created and governed by a machine?
The musical event, which features music (and lyrics and book) by César Alvarez with the Lisps and is imaginatively, fantastically directed by Sarah Benson, offers little in terms of a clarified answer to these questions. Rather, it’s a darkly enchanted lyric-driven engagement, via ambitious musical numbers given transcendent voice by Alvarez, Tunis, and 11 other excellent actor-musicians, who play instruments, sing, and march all at the same time (the choreography, extraordinary in how simple it looks but how probably extremely difficult it is to execute, is by David Neumann). If we think of the traditional plot-driven musical as one that features main characters who sing out of the need to express emotion and eventually either get (or don’t get) what they’re after, Futurity stakes out a position that is more opaque, overtly conceptual. Characters are created in order to serve the songs (not the other way around), and the songs themselves are packed to the brim with philosophy, science, ideas. It’s poetics, not just poetry.
And unlike most musicals that you’re likely to encounter in this age of overt technology and commercial ambition, it is indelibly human-made; no musical-making machine could ever achieve such an imaginative and singular result.