A couple of weeks ago, we drove down to Portland to see a play that promised to mix science fiction and typography. How could I resist a that combination? (“Are you sure you didn’t write this play?” asked a skeptical friend of mine when I told him about it.)
The play is Futura, written by Jordan Harrison, and directed in this performance by Kip Fagan at the Portland Center Stage. (I say “this performance” because the play was having a sort of parallax début: it opened simultaneously in Portland and Los Angeles, after being workshopped in 2009 at the JAW Playwrights’ Festival in Portland.)
The opening act is a lecture on typography – and a good one. In the best science-fiction tradition, you realize, as the lecture goes on, that there’s more to the context that you thought. When the lecturer whips out a genuine piece of paper, it is clearly meant to be a shock to her students. This is a world where physical books have been superseded, and banned, replaced by an agreed-upon digital library that keeps changing, and has no grounding in solid fact. The lecturer drops acerbic references to her late husband, who seems to have been murdered, apparently by the forces of imposed order.
The first act ends [spoiler here!] when the lecturer is suddenly kidnapped, blindfolded and hustled offstage.
The trouble with Futura is that it breaks down after that. The four actors seem good; it’s the writing that lets them down. The arguments between two of the main characters in the second act are true to life, the kind of half-thought-through emotional arguments that people really make. But the play itself doesn’t rise above them, or go any deeper. The logic falls apart at the slightest touch. The metaphor, reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, doesn’t really offer any more insight than a sort of worried extrapolation of Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books.
The stage sets were wonderful. (I wonder what they were like in the LA performance.) I’m not at all sorry that I went to see this play; I’m just disappointed that it wasn’t better than it was. There’s a lot to be said about books, printing, digital literature, and society; but this play didn’t go beyond its own characters’ blinkered arguments.
Still: “Futura”? How could any typographer resist?