Arts and Humanities
4:04 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

Review: Typographical Dystopia a Love Letter to the Printed Word

Five years ago, when playwright Jordan Harrison began writing “Futura,” the death of print still sounded like an ominous prophecy, one that could be enlarged into the stuff dystopian fantasies are made of. Today, that dread is palpable to some, and the paperless future is almost here.

In “Futura” (named after the typeface that functions as a lovely metaphor in the first part of the play), an oppressive government has collected all writings into one big file called “The Collection” and outlawed paper, books and even writing by hand. Just talking about cursive is a transgressive act. Knowledge of a secret file with original scans of published books is treason. The resistance fighters want their freedom in the form of privacy.

Directed by Amy Attaway, “Futura” opened Theatre [502]’s second season last Friday.  “Futura” fits well within Theatre [502]’s stated mission to produce plays that are both recent and relevant.

The relevancy of “Futura” is undeniable. We’re fumbling through a liminal space, not fully paperless but moving, perhaps inevitably, in that direction. I took notes during Friday’s performance in a small lined notebook with a pen, but I typed this review on a plastic keyboard, and I’ll read it off a small phone screen later. According to the play, each process lights up different pathways in my brain. The words written in my small lined notebook are allowed to stay private, while the key-stroked, uploaded review is public.

“Futura” opens with Professor Lorraine Wexler (Laurene Scalf) delivering an extended monologue, a lecture on the history of typography. The monologue is both a lyric love letter to movable type and the inevitable unraveling of the professor’s historian veneer of detachment. She’s also the author of an academic paper titled “The New Alexandria,” which may or may not implicate her in a dangerous resistance scheme. When she’s kidnapped by young rebels Grace (Betsy Huggins, a firecracker) and Gash (Drew Cash, who simmers beautifully) under the command of missing dissident Edward (Tad Chitwood), we learn just how dangerous Lorraine’s knowledge might be.

Because we spend so much time solo with Lorraine in the first third of the story, the play is heavily weighted toward her concerns. When we learn that she and Edward don’t share the same vision for rebellion, Edward’s passion can’t stand up to hers. And while Chitwood and Scalf are both formidable talents, individually convincing, their on-stage chemistry doesn’t quite live up to the stormy conflict the two need to share. That we’ll follow Lorraine and her love of the handmade antiquity feels like a foregone conclusion, but it would have been nice to dwell on Edward's complex questions of the value of technology for a while first.

Harrison is a witty writer, but this play tends to err on the serious side. The nods the playwright does make to dystopian literary tropes are played fairly straight by the actors except Huggins, who goes all-out in her portrayal of the archetypal loose cannon. On stage, it can be a fine line between a knowing wink and an elbow to the ribs, but very understated sly references to genre can disappear or appear merely derivative when they’re not.

Because the action is confined to rebel spaces, even within the university lecture, we never fully see the citizens bowed under the “stupor of convenience,” and so the lure of technology isn't quite examined fairly, in all its complexities, within the world of the play. That undermines the danger of its potential for oppression and assumes the play is preaching at least somewhat to the choir.

Ultimately, though, the paperless future is no longer a hypothetical threat, something dangerous that can be reversed if we only pay close enough attention (though the idea that it will take an oppressive regime to bring us to that point is fantasy enough–we’re going cheerfully, for the most part). “Futura” is a play that will make you think about the value of the human impulse to create, the sacrifices of the preservationists, and the ongoing tension between honoring the past and encouraging progress. And yet it never resorts to blind technophobia, either.

What do we trade for convenience and access? Is what we lose worth what we gain? I’m happy to see Theatre [502] engaging its audience in these vital questions.

“Futura” through June 9 in the Victor Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville.