In “Futurity,” a genre-bending show created by César Alvarez and his indie band The Lisps, a soldier during the Civil War contacts the daughter of a famous 19th century British poet to help him build “a machine that creates peace.”
The show is not based on a true story, although one of the two central characters did in fact exist: Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, was indeed a mathematician who worked to develop an early computer, albeit not one explicitly intended to rid the world of war.
“Futurity” is not a bio-drama, though, and certainly not a traditional musical. What it is exactly is hard to sum up or to pin down.
It is Steampunk (a genre of science fiction that takes place in the 19th century) brought to the stage. It is also a concept album (released in 2012) brought to life.
It is a grim, raw if sporadic dramatization of the Civil War as experienced by the 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, well-directed by Sarah Benson, the artistic director of SoHo Rep (which is co-presenting the show with Ars Nova), helped by a terrific design team. At the same time, the drama does not unfold in conventional linear scenes and, with the exception of Karen Kandel as the robust, poignant general, there’s not much acting (or even interacting) to speak of.
But Futurity is also a hip, fun concert: They serve popcorn in the lobby of the Connelly Theater before the show, and even after the show begins, hosts Cesar Alvarez and Sammy Tunis, founding members of The Lisps, engage in jokey ad-libbed banter — when they are not portraying the central characters, Civil War soldier Julian Munro and Countess Lovelace. Futurity’s almost two dozen musical numbers (by Alvarez and the Lisps) are a pleasing, eclectic mix of mostly folk-tinged tunes.
The lyrics and dialogue (by Alvarez), however, are often indistinguishable from the kind of late-night philosophical musings by that cerebral physics major you knew in college. The characters sing about and stew over technology and morality, time and terror, artificial intelligence and the power of imagination..
“How could a thinking machine destroy the institution of
slavery?” Ada asks Julian, after he has started up a transatlantic correspondence with her to help build such a machine.
Julian: Could the intelligence of the machine spread, like a virus?
Ada: Ignorance may be better at spreading.
Julian: An improved ability to process information will lead to
better information: a technology of morality.
Ada: Is morality made of information?
Julian: I don’t know.
I can eat up stuff like this. But ultimately “Futurity” probably offers up too much such food for thought without it adding up to a completely satisfying meal. Still, the show is worth it for the music. Most of the dozen members of the cast play their own musical instruments, which enrich the musical on many levels, including the drama; the instruments serve as symbols, and as harmonious contrast to the discord of war.
There is also a terrific Rube Goldberg contraption that is called the Steam Brain, a result of Ada and Julian’s effort.
Eric Farber is listed in the program as “Percussion and Contraption Design.” It’s a delight to see him perform on the Steam Brain as if it were just a giant complicated percussive instrument, but also perform using a small brief case full of percussive instruments, including a mini musical washboard. At the beginning of Act II, Farber comes on stage to recite a poem
Some wars go on and will not cease
The truce it never comes
Some live for war and some for peace
But me, I play the drums
And I’ll play some more in just a minute
I know it’s hard to wait
Say what you will about the play
My drumming is pretty great
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged
Soho Rep. and Ars Nova at Connelly Theater
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps
Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez
Directed by Sarah Benson
Choreography | DAVID NEUMANN
Set Design | EMILY ORLING & MATT SAUNDERS
Percussion and Contraption Design | ERIC FARBER
Lighting Design | YI ZHAO
Costume Design | EMILY ORLING
Sound Design | MATT TIERNEY
Props Design | NOAH MEASE
Fight Choreography | J. DAVID BRIMMER
Music Director | CÉSAR ALVAREZ
Dramaturg | JACKIE SIBBLIES DRURY
Script Development & Additional Text | MOLLY RICE
Production Stage Manager | TERRI K. KOHLER
Cast: César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, Sammy Tunis
Running time: two hours including one intermission
Tickets: $35 (99 cents on select Sundays)
Futurity is scheduled to play through through Nov. 15