There are few joys in life greater than going to theater to see something you know little about and walking out transformed by the experience. The pursuit of that rush is why I subscribe to three different theater companies, have tickets early in each run, and never read reviews before I attend performances.
The most outré theater I attend is the ART, where sometimes I like what I see, sometimes I hate it, but I never forget it. ART’s hallmark is twisting convention. Sometimes it is terrible, but when the ART’s vision works, as it does in the blockbuster Porgy and Bess now triumphing on Broadway, or Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer’s turn as the MC in Cabaret, or the disco infused Shakespeare of The Donkey Show, it is miraculous.
On Thursday I attended the second performance of Futurity, a musical by The Lisps. I never heard of The Lisps, and ART’s pre-performance email described Futurity as a civil war era musical about a machine that created peace; not material that is obviously compelling. The performance was held at Oberon, ART’s alternative performance space where the audience sits in small cafe tables. I had a terrible seat, in the shadow of the band. By the end of 100 minutes my neck ached from craning up at everyone’s chin, but the rest of my spirit was so buoyed, my pains barely registered.
The Lisps are five musicians, a dashing pair of lead singers (Cesar Alvarez and Sammy Tunis), bass player Lorenzo Wolff, a keyboard, and drummer Eric Farber who was ensconced in a percussive mousetrap fantasy. Over the course of the performance the drum space grows ever more complex and delightful as it becomes the machine that creates peace, ultimately involving half dozen or more cast members creating amazing rhythms together in their pursuit of elusive harmony.
Cesar is a Civil War private, adrift in the Ohio 30th Division as they wend their way to inflict and/or experience death in Virginia. Cesar maneuvers his guitar with the same imprecision as the wooden rifles wielded by the chorus soldiers. Sammy is the gorgeous, brainy, and articulate Ada Lovelace, the real life daughter of Lord Byron and a serious theoretical mathematician of her era. Their shared journey, separated by an ocean, wealth, intellect, and circumstance, is a moving love story, and the bizarre notion of a machine that creates peace becomes ever more compelling, and important, as the troops move closer to the complete and pointless annihilation that remains our country’s bloodiest moment.
The music is incredible, the percussion amazing, the staging creative, and the emotional narrative compelling, but the lyrics steal the show. The songs are dense with intellectual rapping that ask important questions about whether our brains define meaning or are they just a neutral medium, and how might machines transcend the input we provide? Questions pertinent in our post nuclear age posited against such quaint technological advances as the repeating rifle. Any show that includes a song that forges provocative links between Socrates, Copernicus, Pythagoras, Mary Shelley, and Abraham Lincoln is a winner with me.
As a regular theater goer I am particular about standing ovations, but at Futurity’s last chord I sprang to my feet. I lingered to chat with the cast, Eric gave me a tour of the drum contraption, Sammy Tunis stole my heart; and I purchased the CD. Who knew I had such groupie genes.
I look forward to seeing Futurity again, and wonder how long it will be until another theatrical event captivates me so.