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BWW Review: Carpenter Square Theatre Drives Forward With ADA AND THE ENGINE

Running through May 1.

BWW Review: Carpenter Square Theatre Drives Forward With ADA AND THE ENGINE

Carpenter Square Theatre Drives Forward with ADA AND THE ENGINE

There's a point in Lauren Gunderson's ADA AND THE ENGINE when the titular Ada tells famed scientist Charles Babbage, "once you've seen the future, it's born". A forward-looking play celebrating technological innovation and unrestrained imagination feels appropriate right now. On a larger scale, the country has seen a watershed scientific achievement with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. On a smaller scale, Carpenter Square is plowing forward in the aftermath of a warehouse fire that destroyed decades-worth of scenery and costume pieces. Under the direction of Tom Cowley, ADA AND THE ENGINE is sending the message loud and clear: Carpenter Square is persevering with an eye towards the future.

Lauren Gunderson is America's most-produced playwright, and when you watch one of her plays, it isn't hard to see why. Often blending the poetic and other-worldly with the secular, Gunderson's work explores ideas ranging from the beauty of human connection to the works of William Shakespeare. Just last year, Gunderson debuted a play based on her own husband, who happens to be a virologist. In ADA AND THE ENGINE, Gunderson looks at the nature of intellect and technological innovation through the lens of real-life Ada Byron Lovelace, daughter of poet Lord Byron.

BWW Review: Carpenter Square Theatre Drives Forward With ADA AND THE ENGINE
Kaylan Ferrell as Ada Lovelace and
David Burkhart as Charles Babbage in
ADA AND THE ENGINE

The play is an imagined version of Lovelace's relationship with inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, considered by many to be the father of the computer. Here, Babbage is portrayed as a Steve Jobs-esque figure. He's theorized what he calls a difference engine, a mechanical device that functions as a calculator. As the play progresses, he and Lovelace dream up increasingly sophisticated engines, culminating in Lovelace's idea for an engine that can create music. In essence, Lovelace and Babbage dreamt up the first computer. While many of their designs were never realized, their vision for what their machines could do paved the way for today's iPads and smartphones. The play treats Lovelace and Babbage as intellectual equals and colleagues, subverting the traditional Victorian notion of a woman's place in society. The play is less a biography and more an exploration of the poetry of science and the beauty of innovation, though the biographical details of Lovelace's life are very much present and accurate.

Carpenter Square's production accomplishes what it needs to, even if it does at times feel a little...well, mechanical. There's a balancing act between the buttoned-down Victorian style and the heart that the play asks for, and it didn't feel like the somewhat restrained production quite found that balance. There's also a fiery sense of optimism and promise early on in the play that makes seeing Ada's flame slowly burn out all the more heart-wrenching. While that fire wasn't quite fully tapped into, there is a lot to enjoy and celebrate about this production. Kaylan Ferrell delivers a sweet performance as Ada. Hers is a woman keenly aware of her own intellect and the possibilities of the future, and Ferrell nicely navigates between Ada's sense of youthfulness and her precociousness. David Burkhart's Babbage is easefully charming and yet has a commanding presence. He serves as a nice contrast to Taylor Reich's Lord Lovelace. Reich is a force in the role and provides humor and drama with equal competency. Reich and Ferrell brought a particularly nice tenderness to the final scene, in which Reich assumes the role of Lord Byron. Laurie Blankenship effectively brings a quiet matronly force to her dual roles as Ada's mother Annabella Byron and scientist Mary Sommerville.

Ultimately, the production treats Lovelace's story with grace and gives her a due voice as one of history's great minds, Victorian standards be darned. The humor woven throughout the story is deftly executed, which is no small feat given that at times the play feels equal part historical drama and comedy of manners.

Ben Hall's pared-down set design was effective, conveying a sense of space but also giving the play an ethereal quality. The five upstage panels displaying a series of math equations were beautifully lit in blue by lighting designer Jay C. Schardt, and the Victorian costumes designed by Rhonda Clark are stunning.

ADA AND THE ENGINE performs at Carpenter Square through May 1. Tickets are available at carpentersquare.com. The theatre is also accepting donations as it seeks to rebuild in the wake of The Warehouse fire. Donations can be made through GoFundMe at https://gofund.me/19ac84e1.


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