Ada and the Engine is more mechanical tool than finely calibrated dramatic device | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Ada and the Engine is more mechanical tool than finely calibrated dramatic device

The gears keep spinning, but we never get anywhere.


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I suppose it would be difficult not to make a mechanical engine the central metaphor of any play about Ada Byron Lovelace. Daughter of the great Romantic poet Lord Byron, she so excelled in mathematics that she surpassed the era's preeminent mathematician, Charles Babbage, by recognizing the potential his Analytical Engine (arguably the first modern computer) had beyond number crunching. Where Babbage saw numbers only as quantities, Lovelace saw them as units in any system of relational meanings—musical notes, for example—upon which the Engine could operate. In essence, she foresaw universal computing a full century before it came to be.

It's heady stuff, which playwright Lauren Gunderson renders without a trace of smartypants abstraction, instead capturing the intellectual thrill that fired Lovelace beyond the social limits imposed upon women of her time. But Gunderson's play is itself a kind of mechanical engine, its inputs largely limited to schematic oppositions between and within characters: romance vs. logic, passion vs. propriety, vision vs. convention. Despite intricate performances from Brookelyn Hébert as Lovelace and John Mossman as Babbage, the first 90 minutes of this two-hour drama feel more like the spinning of gears than the unfolding of lives. Director Monica Payne's crystal-clear production could benefit from a healthy injection of ambiguity.

That is, until Gunderson sends her entire play into puzzling obscurity, chasing her protagonist into the heart of a glowing, talking, singing computer somewhere in the afterlife. It's a finale that's all detour and no arrival.   v

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