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THEATER REVIEW Ada and the Engine
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Lauren Gunderson

At: The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; $34. Runs through: Aug. 4

"If we wanted melodrama, we would have gone to the opera!" snaps the only character without an axe to grind in Lauren Gunderson's historically deconstructive origin story of the modern computer. Since this remark is made early in the play, its irony is unlikely to register on audiences until too late for us to retrace our steps and meander down alternative paths.

Certainly, our protagonist epitomizes the heroines of early Victorian literature: she is Augusta Ada Byron, the sole legitimate child of the rakehell poet known to us today as Lord Byron. Her upbringing under the care of an embittered mother determined to discourage filial idolatry of the now-deceased sire who abandoned them has disposed Ada to scientific pursuits, even as her scandalous surname necessitates her marrying into wealth and respectability. Providing both is William King, Earl of Lovelace, whose lack of scholarly acumen is redeemed by his willingness to indulge his beloved wife's intellectual lifeblood.

Oh, but what's a Radcliffian romance without a hero possessed of education, maturity, and mystery? Gunderson asks us to find those qualities in real-life mathematician-inventor Charles Babbage. Once these two megaminds connect, no amount of social decorum or personal differences can stop these two eggheads from cooking up the omelet they christen the "analytical" engine.

After delivering a nice, chewy, hankie-wringing tale of unconsummated passion channeled into grand accomplishments concluding with deathbed confessions, though, our author steers us into a realm wholly divorced from everything we have hitherto—not to mention laboriously—struggled to navigate.

Gunderson's epilogue proposes a post-mortem Ada reuniting with her long-lost father, who bestows upon her the answers and approval she hungered for in life—blessings she reciprocates by offering him a glimpse of a future enriched by her discoveries. Among these are the fusion of science and art, embodied in machines making music, illustrated by its progenitors pacing the length of the tunnel-like stage in an ecstasy of revelation culminating in a full-cast music-and-lights show for the final scene.

At one point, Ada observes that in polite society, one may be boring, or confusing, but not both at once. Gunderson's abrupt shift in narrative mode, coupled with the aural crossfire produced thereby, may unbalance our comprehension temporarily, but the Artistic Home has never met a text that it couldn't wrestle to the mat. Under the unhurried direction of Monica Payne, the cast led by John Mossman and Brookelyn Hebert ( the latter garbed in Zachary Wagner's ingenious peel-away period ball gown ) as the brainy soulmates ensure that however Gunderson's ill-advised plunge into magic realism may confuse, it never bores.

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