Ghost in the Machine: Ada and the Engine


Friday afternoon, March 13, 2020: A handful of cultural institutions had already announced that they were temporarily going dark in order to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four shows I was scheduled to rewatch had already been canceled “until further notice” and I was at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, planning to leave at 5 p.m. for the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington to review the setting. stage of the Avant Bard Theater in Lauren Gundersonit’s Ada and the engine. At 4:35, my phone vibrated: the show and the rest of the Avant Bard season had been cancelled.

Two years have passed. Artistic Director of Avant Bard Tom Prewitt dead in November 2020 and there was a brief period of uncertainty as to whether the business would continue. Fortunately, thanks to a new leadership model producer partners (including Sara Barker, Alyssa Sanderand Seraph Demon) and they relaunched a few productions, including Ada and the engine with its cast and production team.

Ada Byron, the future Countess of Lovelace (Dina Soltan), leans on the volume of his late father, the romantic poet Lord Byron (Jon Reynolds) who abandoned her and her mother Lady Byron (Jessica Lefkow) shortly after her birth in 1815. At a time when moral scandal was believed to be hereditary, Lady Byron spent the next few years protecting her daughter from the temptation of poetry, educating her only in mathematics and in music, trying to rehabilitate their reputation. so that Ada can marry someone respectable: the Earl of Lovelace (also Reynolds).

Everything is going according to plan, but if that was all, Ada Lovelace would barely be a chapter in her father’s biographies. Instead, at 18, she befriended the brilliant mathematician and inventor, Charles Babbage (Matthew Pauli) during a presentation of its Difference Engine. By design, the machine was capable of calculating polynomials, storing past calculations in its wheel alignments, and, if built, printing tables that would have benefited shipping and industry. British. However, Babbage refocused his attention on his “Analytical Engine”, a machine that could be programmed by punch card to run any algorithm – in short, a computer.

Babbage was prone to quarrel with politicians who did not see the value in his work (he never delivered anything beyond partial prototypes). Eventually, his funding was cut. Lovelace, however, was more than a friend bright enough to understand him. When she translated a transcript of Babbage’s 1840 Turin lecture on the engine, she published it with her own copious annotations, including an algorithm (believed to be the first published computer program) and a statement about the potential of Babbage’s invention. He established Lovelace as one of the founding figures of computing more than a century before the invention of the transistor. (Without Lovelace’s insight, my aforementioned smartphone, and even the methods my editors and I use to publish this review, would be unimaginable.)

Director Megan Behm balances the exploration of ideas with the emotional intimacy of the small play space. Designer Alison Johnson dresses the characters with distinctive color palettes that persist through their costume changes, and Neil McFaddenThe score strikes a similar balance between computer-generated and humanistic.

Soltan skillfully depicts Ada’s growth over 18 years – from a young woman, almost as giddy at being wooed as she is known for her intellect, to an adult who increasingly demands to be seen as an equal partner. by his mentor, and finally his painful death at the age of 36 from cancer of the uterus. Pauli plays Charles with the ups and downs of genius, the exhilaration of his ideas being understood and the frustration of the scarcity of understanding. Lefkow and Reynolds play fine supporting roles. (Reynolds shows off his physical theater skills in his only scene as Lord Byron, playing the affected dissolute grace with which the poet would hide his lameness.)

While fictional depictions of Lovelace and Babbage are a mainstay of the steampunk genre, Gunderson’s storyline is grounded in historical records. Her artistry lies in the way she merges the emotional lives of her characters with their ideas in often exquisite language: in one scene, Ada and Charles manage to describe the functions of the engine while simultaneously evoking the image of the brass giant. and steam steel. brain. Gunderson reserves his most imaginative leap for the final scene in which all the information is retrievable and the poetry, scientific exposition and music are one contrapuntal invention. Is it Ada’s deathbed hallucination fueled by religion and laudanum or a future transhumanist utopia?

Before Bard Theater Ada and the engineby Lauren Gunderson and directed by Megan Behm, runs through March 26 at the Gunston Arts Center. Pay what you can – $40.

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