nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 28, 2010
As an editor and writer who's also dabbled in graphic design, and as the kind of reader who's actually been known to put a book back on the shelf if I find its text design clunky or un-pleasing, I may just be the perfect audience member for a play named after a font, which commences with a lecture from its central character on the history of typography. But even if you don't share my pre-existing fascination with typefaces, there's a lot to enjoy in Jordan Harrison's Futura, a play bristling with ideas about the near future of human communication and thought—and about our paradoxical relationships to technology and each other—given a stylish production by director Liz Diamond and the National Asian American Theatre Company.
Set in an unspecified near future, where the transformation of print culture into digital culture has become so complete that the act of putting pen to paper in any literal sense is so archaic that schoolchildren are no longer even taught to write, the play begins with the aforementioned lecture, given by Professor Lorraine Wexler and ranging from the Gutenberg Bible to the Amazon Kindle and beyond into the "Great Collection," the worldwide acquisition and digitization of every piece of extant printed matter in the world, creating a universal library that can be accessed by all, anywhere, anytime. Encompassing the history of print culture, philosophies of communication, biographies of notable type designers and printers (fascinating whether entirely accurate or not, and I'm not entirely sure which), and some alarming possibilities for the ongoing development of cloud computing, the lecture is strikingly enjoyable both as an actual lecture (its ideas about the way visual form affects and modulates comprehension, and about the way both the printing press and later the computer reworked society's relationship to text are only some of the striking features) and as a piece of theatre. For it doesn't just give us abstract information, it's also a beautifully subtle way to handle quite a lot of necessary exposition, and to establish the play's central character, a woman who'd stepped away from teaching for several years after the death of her husband (also a professor) and who has a markedly ambivalent relationship to the signal features of her contemporary culture.
But when the lecture is suddenly interrupted and the Professor finds herself in the custody of a cell of...I guess you'd call them "biblioterrorists," or "guerrilla bibliophiles"—people willing to live off the omnipresent technical grid in order to resist the trend toward a Big-Brother-like surveillance society being instituted by the keepers of the universal library—the play turns in another direction, and the question becomes not what she thinks about her current historical moment, but to what extent she's willing to act on her convictions.
Where two members of the terrorist cell, a hot-headed young woman and the cell's leader, seem fully prepared to use violence to get answers, the third, Gash, a young man who's necessary to the underground for his technical skills, has his own, more emotionally resonant reasons for wanting to meet the Professor. He wants to learn from her, and their bond becomes the emotional center of the play.
That bond is helped along by beautifully counterbalanced performances from Mia Katigbak as the Professor and the exceptional young actor Christopher Larkin as Gash. The Professor is both drawn to Gash and using him, and he, in turn, both needs something from her and wants a way out of the company he's found himself keeping. Where Katigbak is all defenses, putting a shell of sardonic comments, intellectual superiority, and world-weariness over a fragile core that only shows itself in brief moments of breakdown, Larkin is completely unguarded; you can read Gash's every thought on his face (most of them anxious; Gash only seems fully sure of himself when talking about his bomb-making skills). In bringing them together, Harrison gives a welcome human dimension to the ideas underpinning the play.
To be sure, the piece succeeds more in asking questions than in answering, or even fully investigating them; there's a way in which the scaling down toward the specific relationship of Gash and the Professor dead-ends some of the larger philosophical questions raised earlier in the play. And I didn't always find the details of this future world and its immediate back story entirely plausible or well-constructed (though I loved Olivera Gajic's just-a-tiny-bit-futuristic costumes). But I was captivated enough by the rest of it not to mind: by the swirl of ideas, by the way Liz Diamond's staging meshes with David Evans Morris's ingenious Russian-nesting-doll of a set, and, above all, by the relationship between the Professor and the most conflicted of her captors.