Future Issues: RAGS PARKLAND SINGS THE SONGS OF THE FUTURE
Andrew Butler’s Rags Parkland Sings The Songs Of The Future (running at Ars Nova through November 3rd) has one of the more appropriate ‘succinct descriptor’ titles of the season, in that the title tells you pretty much what you’re signing up for. Butler plays a character named Rags Parkland and he indeed sings the songs of the future, albeit from the future – and also the further-on future, as the main twist of the production involves a memory-flashback in which Rags is joined onstage by his former band and they let the good times roll, for a time.
The show employs a deceptively simple construction; Rags appears alone on stage at the top of show and announces that it’s his first gig back on Earth for quite some time. He seems rattled, a little nervous. He sings several songs, referring to their original authors, who we’ve of course never heard of – except for one clever reworded ‘cover’ that helps us ground ourselves. He thanks us for being there, as attending this particular club signifies that we are among the future woke – this is a secret music venue, subterranean, an illegal haunt that still allows for the music of ‘constructed humans’ (i.e., robots) to be played, by humans (of which Rags is one) or cyborgs alike. The songs themselves are standard-issue folk/rock songs, suggesting that perhaps folk music will always sound like folk music, no matter the era – Butler accompanies himself with banjo, guitar, and the occasional harmonica. Between songs, he briefly engages the audience to provide context for the next song, but it’s clear that there’s something weighing on him. That weight eventually opens up via flashback in front of us, and we follow him back to a time when his band was whole.
The five-piece ensemble enters and commences to play most of a set along with Rags – and that’s pretty much the extent of the structural body of the show. Its simplicity cuts two ways – on the one hand, it’s the most direct and honest way to depict this particular performance, and it doesn’t rely on tricks or dramatic sleight of hand, which is refreshing; but on the other hand, it also risks a bit of predictability as a result. Butler’s constructed a world wherein he’s only allotted himself a single shoe drop, and it’s not hard to figure out just when that moment of reversal might occur.
Paying close attention to the lyrics gives you a much clearer sense of the world that Butler’s constructing and evoking – there is pain, hurt, lovesickness for miles in every direction, emanating from this club across the country, world, and intergalactic beyond. There’s a certain sense of it being the same as it always was – the world is still a burning dung heap, only now we can add robots to the list of the marginalized. There’s something interesting in the fabric of that idea, the fact that dehumanizing can take place even when the subject is not in fact human, and there are probably many other world-based questions that one might ask, most of which will go unanswered. Rags Parkland Sings The Songs Of The Future doesn’t fill in the blanks, and by not doing so renders itself fuller as a result, buoyed by the mere power of suggestion and the often plaintive yet joyful music instead.