The play Futura, produced by the National Asian-American Theater Company (NAATCO), is an odd little post-apocalyptic drama featuring a typeface. Half fascinating lecture on the history of the printing press, and half rehash of oft-used conventions from dystopian sci-fi dramas ranging from Farenheit 51 to The Matrix, the play doesn’t quite hang together, but manages to entertain anyway, in addition to provoking some very of-the-moment thoughts about the final implications and dangers of the digital age.
Futura takes place sometime in the future, in a world where everything is digital and the populace is taught to read, but no longer to write. In addition, all the books in the world have been digitized in the “great collection” and then systematically edited, censored and/or erased by “the company” that now rules the world. However, one professor, played by NAATCO founder Mia Katigbak, bravely rebels against “the company,” advocating for the low tech practice of writing by hand on a page of paper and a return to the personal privacy that it allows. She also claims to know about a secret “zero drive” that holds the original, unaltered written material that the company has tried to eradicate, hidden away from their censorial clutches. This secret gets the professor kidnapped by a rag-tag band of underground rebels, willing to brave unfiltered air and the wrath of the company to restore the world’s knowledge. Twists ensue.
We learn the above information in the midst of a long college lecture on the history of the mechanization of writing, an the art of creating fonts (one of which is the widely used real-life font futura). This lecture, as interesting as it is, doesn’t connect clearly with the second act of the play, when the dominant conflict becomes advocacy for or against the use of paper, pen and hand to write. Never is the merit of the printing press and the hardcopy books it allowed for in question; it is digitization, not mechanization that is being criticized. This structural flaw in the play is easy to overlook in the midst of kidnapping, gunshots, pulse bombs, and madcap escapes. It is only in the last scene, which is lovely, candlelit, and decidedly mellow compared to what came before that one has time to think, ‘wait a minute, this doesn’t really make sense.’
Surprisingly high production values, especially a complicated set by David Ecans Morris lend futuristic credibility to the production. Unfortunately, as cool and innovative as it is, the set, which restricts the playing space and as well as flaunting sightlines in the steeply raked house, ultimately works to the detriment of the piece; the actors can neither move freely nor be seen properly by the audience.
Despite its flaws, Futura is a largely pleasurable 90 minutes. Although the themes and the plot don’t gel, they each stand in their own right. Sci-fi dystopian adventure is a fun genre. Contemplating how machines have co-opted and altered the process of writing down our thoughts, especially those most private and personal, is a worthwhile endeavor. Most of us use the internet to facilitate more and more aspects of our lives; are we blithely traipsing into a minefield where our privacy and ultimately all of human knowledge can be toyed with or centrally controlled? I am writing this review in Google Documents as we speak. Will “the company” take these words and use them for good or ill in the world? Certainly, they have access to this document if they want it. Luckily, some things, like off-Broadway theater, still fall under the radar of the all-seeing, all-knowing digital eye. Put Futura on your radar, and take in a worthwhile evening of provocative non-digital entertainment.
(Futura plays through November 13, 2010 at the TBG Theater, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues. Remaining showtimes are Mondays through Fridays at 7:00pm, and Satrudays at 3:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are $25go and are available online at smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For more information, visit naatco.com.)