“Ada and the Engine” in Fine Condition

By Ernest Kearney  —  Playwright Lauren Gunderson is the current “flavor of the month” of the American theatre scene, with her works the most often produced of any living American playwright.

For me, the jury is still out.

I have endured her award winning I and You which was a mediocre Twilight Zone episode at best, appreciated the craftsmanship of Silent Sky, her narrative based on Henrietta Leavitt who dedicated her life to charting the stars at Harvard Observatory during the 1900s, and thoroughly enjoyed her Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight  about one of the guiding figures of the French Enlightenment and supporter of the Encyclopédie.

Ada and the Engine, now being staged by Theatre Unleashed is intriguing in both its subject matter and in its departure from Gunderson’s typical approach to her subjects.

The focus of this work is a continuation of Gunderson’s series of historical women whose contributions have been overlooked or overshadowed by others – generally men.

The story’s central character is Ada Lovelace nee Byron (Jessie Sherman), the only legitimate child of the notorious poet Lord Byron.  Ada, who never met her father before his death, is fascinated by his life and his poetry much to the consternation of her mother Anabella Byron (Denise Nicholson), who is constantly on the lookout for signs of the father’s madness appearing in the daughter.

Ada also frustrates her mother by, both, her distain for the niceties of proper society and her passion for mathematics.

It is through her friend Mary Somerville (Michelle Holmes) who was one of the first women to gain membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, that Ada is introduced to Charles Babbage (Alex Knox) mathematician and engineer.

Babbage was one of the great “eccentrics” of 19th century Britain, a curious mixture of kook and genius.  The kook was constantly entering into unnecessary arguments with those who were in a position to help or hinder him in his pursuits and noted for his campaigning to ban such practices as the children’s game of “hoops” in public and street musicians.

On the genius side, Babbage is often credited by some as being the “father of the computer.”

Upon their first meeting Ada and Babbage are united by a shared love of mathematics, and when Babbage invites her to see the prototype of his difference engine, an early precursor of a digital programmable computer, Ada commits to assisting him in its development.

Ada pursues her commitment to Babbage and her work on the “engine” even after her marriage to William King-Noel, later Lord Lovelace (Gregory Crafts).

The play itself carries the least creditable claims of Gunderson’s historical pieces, as Lovelace’s contribution in the actual development of Babbage’s engine is widely disputed.  What is beyond question is that Lovelace’s vision of the engine’s potential far exceeded Babbage’s own, earning her the title of “prophetess to the computer age.”

Fortunately, this matter set aside for the scholars, Gunderson’s play is both entertaining and moving, and apparently the stars have aligned for this staging of it.

Knox and Crafts are each excellent as the men who both love Ada and yet are eclipsed by her.  Nicholson succeeds in portraying a mother who punishes her child for the sins of its father, and is nasty enough that one keeps expecting her to bellow out, “No wire coat hangers ever!”

Both Holmes and Casey Hunter (as the ghost of Lord Byron) manage to have moments in roles that don’t allow for many.

But it is Sherman in the titular role that captures the audience and drives the pacing of the piece as she takes us from the joy of a young girl’s passion to the price of a woman’s dream.

Director Heidi Powers enriches the production beyond the typical black box fare employing the excellent costumes of Denise Barrett and the animation of Kevin Hilton to enclose the stage into the expanding vista of ideas.

Unlike her other works that I know, Gunderson chose to incorporate music into Ada and the Engine, arising from Lovelace’s prediction that one day Babbage’s difference engine could even be used to produce music.  This addition benefits the effort, even if the choreography in this production seemed somewhat under rehearsed.   But they have the rest of the run to work on that feature.

Overall, thanks to the fusion of a talented director and cast, Ada and the Engine offers a solid evening of entertainment to any audience and Theatre Unleashed has earned a definite feather to add to their bonnet.


Ada and the Engine

playing

March 21st-31st, 2019

at studio/stage

520 North Western

Los Angeles, CA 90004

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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