BWW Review: FUTURITY offers 'singular' experience at The Wilbury Theatre Group
If you took two plutonium hemispheres labeled "American folk tradition" and "cerebral poetry" and smashed them together in a critical mass, the musical "Futurity" would be the resulting atomic explosion. The Wilbury Theatre Group in Providence has captured the chaotic energy of this show in a production that is uplifting, thought-provoking, and totally enjoyable.
Written by César Alvarez with Molly Rice and featuring music by Alvarez and his band, The Lisps, "Futurity" comes with impressive bona fides: it premiered at The American Repertory Theatre in 2012, with an off-Broadway run in 2015 that earned it the Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and an Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Musical.
"Futurity" presents a vivid science fiction alternate history. It's the story of a Civil War soldier, Julian, played with dexterity and depth by Alexander Platt, whose Union troop is headed south to meet the enemy. He dreams of building a thinking machine that will end war. In his song "Don't Wait," he envisions the panacea of pure mechanical imagination. "There's no problem not solved/by the twist of a knob/No panic not managed/by some complex mechanics." Platt brings an intelligence and charisma to the part that allows us to see, as Julian does, possibilities beyond grim wartime reality.
Julian captures the imagination and enlists the help of Ada Lovelace, a real historical figure who was the daughter of Lord Byron and the first computer programmer of Charles Babbage's difference engine. "Your vision is like a poem in mechanical form," she tells Julian. Meg Sullivan brings a fine voice, and ably reflects Ada's intellect and passion. In her song "The Meaning or the Medium," she speculates on the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. "What's the animating force from which intelligence emerges?/Is it material in nature or a spiritual conversion?/Are the particles inside the brain the meaning or the medium of life?"
Jason Quinn is a standout vocally as the General, and his elegiac number "Still Walking," sung over the body of a soldier is chilling. David Rabinow portrays the Sergeant with brisk efficiency and anchors many of the songs with his skilled acoustic guitar work.
This is musically demanding show for the cast. Written and originally performed in concert by The Lisps, all the performers have to serve double duty as musicians, and they have clearly worked hard to meet that challenge.
The uniformly talented ensemble - Nick Corey, Ava Mascena, Maggie Papa, Helena Tafui, and Christine Treglia - do an outstanding job fluidly stepping into multiple roles. Whether they're troops marching along to the flat-out guitar and banjo number "Cumberland Gap," breaking Confederate rail lines in the spiritual/work song "Sinners Land," or donning top hats for a kick line as the Society of Scientists who fund Julian and Ada's invention in the show-stopping "Steam Brain," the ensemble are a delight.
This is no typical genre musical, but rather an exercise in hybrid vigor: the root stock is the simple, sturdy chord progressions of Appalachian folk, with guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle and the occasional washboard. Grafted onto that are staccato, elliptical lyrics that ricochet from the prosaic (Blacklick Creek) to philosophical (Thinking) to transcendent (Singularity).
The Act I close, "Singularity," is a flash-forward anachronism that speaks to our current age's fantasies about uploading our minds into machines:
"Your consciousness can be enjoyed by anyone forever more
And you live in whatever state that you or anyone creates
You could be Giant Squirrel, a statue or a talking cat
The Goodyear blimp, an Etch-a-Sketch, an octopus or a brain in a vat
You keep all the memories and feelings that you ever want
And now you can commence your life as an uploaded extropian."
Of course, this being the Civil War, despite the best efforts of Julian in assembling the Steam Brain, things are not likely to end in such a visionary utopia. However, the show does conclude on a positive note, tying together many of the themes in a plaintive, meditative tune, "Socrates," where Julian and Ada dream about the philosophers of history.
Brien Lang's direction is assured and inventive, with powerful staging choices that move the action into and through the audience to great effect. The Society of Scientists song-and-dance number is an absolutely brilliant theatrical gem, and Milly Massey's music direction of this challenging score is outstanding. Keri King's scenic design offers a spare, sweeping killing floor set off against Ada's richly detailed and thematically appropriate ivory tower, and Kelly Lipsey's lighting design is unobtrusive and effective. The sound design, by Andy Russ is excellent, with a perfect balance of body mics and amplified instruments that is crisply present but never overwhelms.
Much critical ink has been spilled trying to categorize "Futurity" and its relationship to the musical form. What many have missed is its solid location within a tradition of science fiction music, a continuum that begins with Nerd/geek performers like Jonathan Coulton and ends in "filk" - not a typo, although it began that way - the "folk music" of science fiction, often performed at conventions.
The fusion of acoustic folk song forms and science-infused lyrics is the defining feature of this fertile sub-genre. Attentive listeners will recognize in the pre-show music such filk-adjacent staples as Bowie's "TVC15," the Rolling Stones "2000 Light Years From Home," and Hawkwind's "Quark, Strangeness and Charm."
But the important thing is that you don't have to be a science fiction fan to love what the Wilbury has done here. If you are drawn to shows that expand your definition of "musical," you'll discover a richly theatrical experience, with fine performances, outstanding voices, and music that will leave you thinking.
Futurity Dec 13-15, 20-22 7:30pm, 16 & 23 2pm. General $38, Under 30: $30, Students: $15.
The Wilbury Theatre Group
40 Sonoma Court
Providence, RI 02909
Photo credit: Erin X. Smithers