Review Rundown: FUTURA

CRITIC’S CHOICE! “Futura” is that rare breed, a ripping good yarn with plenty of intellectual heft. Director Jessica Kubzansky handles the transitions from the academic to the suspenseful like an Indy driver shifting into high gear. Friedericy spearheads an exceptional cast, and Tournier is particularly winning as young man avid to put pen to paper and light up his synapses. Myung Hee Cho’s set design, beautifully lighted by Jaymi Lee Smith, starts off with a bare stage and ends with a subterranean repository that is magnificent. Hana Sooyeon Kim’s projection design and John Zalewski’s sound are also crucial components.

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The Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena is wrapping up a notable year this weekend with the final performances of Jordan Harrison’s new play, futura. It’s the fourth premiere in a row for Pasadena’s most adventurous theater company who seems to be expanding under the artistic direction of Michael Michetti and Jessica Kubzansky as quickly as other companies are shrinking in today’s rocky waters. And while I’ve not been completely sold on every minute of every show from this year, there is no lack of ambition in anything this company puts on and everything that hits this Pasadena stage looks like a million bucks.

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FUTURA Nobody writes letters anymore. E-mails, text messages, tweets, bbms, status updates–sure. But not letters. We have lost the art of the letter. And in Jordan Harrison’s world premiere play, named for a sans-serif typeface, Harrison means that literally. In it, Professor Lorraine Wexler (Bonita Friedericy) lectures on the history of typography — until she is abducted mid-sentence. We discover that her talk, an attempt to avenge her missing husband Edward (Bob McCracken), is more dangerous than it initially seems because “the company” has eliminated the printed word.

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The danger of what isn’t known is the most enticing aspect of Jordan Harrison‘s new play, Futura, now in an extended run at Pasadena‘s Theatre @ Boston Court. A college professor (Bonita Friedericy) glares at us, her class, referencing the techniques of charismatic teachers to appear that they’re thinking on their feet (an act) and to appear to be just like the class. “I’m not like you,” she says. “I know more.”  Boy, does she ever.

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…it’s deeply engaging…and it’s a world premiere. In fact, all four plays in Boston Court’s season have been world premieres. It’s frighteningly rare in today’s economic and artistic climate to find a theater willing to commit to new plays.  Much less a whole season of them.

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As expected at the Theatre @ Boston Court, production values are solid, with particularly nice work from Hana Sooyeon Kim’s projections for the opening lecture and Myung Hee Cho’s set (which outdoes itself in the final scene). Bonita Friedericy leads the four-person cast as the Professor, a middle-aged woman who has suffered at the hands of the governing corporate regime, and has lost just enough to engage in a little open rebellion. It’s the Professor’s play, and Friedericy carries it perfectly,

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Futura is rather more successful at thought-provoking than it is at thrilling. Harrison’s dystopian vision of a world dominated by screens is disturbingly imaginable, and the fantastical yet familiar massive touchscreen created by designer Hana Sooyeon Kim, which backs up the Professor’s opening monologue immediately and compellingly ushers us into that almost-attractive world. Once the long first scene concludes, however, we enter into a more conventional 1984-style narrative of futuristic conflict between a dominant power and the small team of rebels who battle to maintain, if not restore, the lost freedoms now receding from society’s general memory.

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It’s the footsoldiers who truly anchor the production, Zarah Mahler breathing fire as a true believer and Edward Tournier exhibiting touching grace as a gawky amateur bombmaker with unexpected depth of soul. Kudos, too, to the entire design team for creating a plausible vision of our futura: clothes just the far side of contemporary from Leah Piehl, and lighting just the right degree of chilly reality from Jaymi Lee Smith.

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WOW! What do you call a play that starts with a 35-minute university lecture on “From Pen To Pixel: A History Of Typography,” turns in an instant into an edge-of-your-seat  thriller, and finally becomes something quite lyrical which leaves you breathless? You call it brilliant. You call it Futura, an extraordinary new play by Jordan Harrison, directed with dramatic flair by the ever brilliant Jessica Kubzansky.

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Friedericy is masterful as the incendiary professor, a brittle academic chipped by years of brushes with the administration and so-called civilization. Friedericy holds the professor together as long as possible, reveals signs of cracking, then firmly gathers herself yet again. Edward Tournier charms, realistic and tenderly young as the revolutionary in search of The Professor’s font of knowledge. Bob McCracken creates with great realism the character of the professor’s ex-husband—and this probably isn’t a spoiler, considering how many times during her lecture the professor speaks of her dead/missing spouse.

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Exceeds expectations. An evening spent seeing “Futura” exceeded expectations on two accounts: The Theatre at Boston Court is clean, well-located, and has lots of free parking. The staff is welcoming and helpful. Prices are affordable. What more could a theater patron want?   Well, how about a really good play? We’re in luck with this 90-minute one-act.

What makes the remarkable 35 minute monologue at the top of FUTURA at Boston Court so riveting is that we not only receive a fascinating account on the evolution of font, but a remarkable expository set-up for what is to come; The Professor (Bonita Friedericy) clearly has a bone to pick with the fact that the digital universe has obliterated books, and the very art of handwriting with it; her husband was murdered because of their outspoken lectures.

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It takes a lot of brass to write a futurist play about a not-so-distant time when print is dead and it is necessary to learn to write again. It takes even more brass to start the play with a thirty-five minute lecture on the history of typography and the mysteries of the font. And it takes even more brass to segue into a melodrama that includes, generally, all sorts of  mayhem, but, specifically, kidnapping and torture and murder. And still more brass to close the play on a note of ruminative poignancy that delicately acknowledges the significance of a smudge.

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