3/26/2021 ADA AND THE ENGINE Pumphouse Players
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(Bias Alert: I have worked with Pumphouse Players and with actor Joel Rose and am inclined to view their work with approval-tinted glasses.)
We all use them. Our cars use them. (Too) Many objects in our homes use them. We carry them in our pockets, a mere seventy years after the smallest computer filled a large room.
So, when did all this madness begin? 1911's Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (Soon to become IBM)? 1946's ENIAC? 1950's Turing Test? 1981's DOS? All of the above?
Let's go the whole way back to 1833, or "When Charles Babbage met Ada Lovelace!"
You see, Mr. Babbage had conceived and modeled what he called his "Difference Engine," a machine that could perform simple arithmetic functions. Ms. Lovelace, (pronounced "love-less," interestingly enough), the only "legitimate" daughter of Lord Byron, had been raised by her (bitter) mother to eschew anything artistic, becoming a bit of a mathematical genius. She saw the potential of Babbage's machine to do more than simple addition.
In 1840, Babbage gave a lecture at the University of Turin about his engine, which was transcribed in French. Ms. Lovelace translated the paper into English, including a "Notes" section longer than the paper itself. That appendix included what is thought to be the world's very first "program," instructions for the "engine" to calculate a series of Bernoulli Numbers. (I'd explain what they are, but I'm not a mathematician. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernoulli_number if you must.)
Okay, there is some debate over whether or not Lovelace actually conceived the program, or whether she merely transcribed Babbage's work. Whichever is true, it is definitely factual that she was an infinitely more accomplished communicator than Babbage, and it is reasonable to assume she had input to the production of the "program."
Although Babbage was never able to get funding for his admittedly expensive engine, he had the last laugh -- In 2011, researchers in England actually produced a working model from his notes, and Lovelace's program worked perfectly.
All this is basic Wikipedia background to Lauren Gunderson's marvelous Ada and the Engine, another in her series of plays about "forgotten" women of science. I loved both Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends her Life Tonight and Silent Sky, and I expected to love this one as well. And indeed I did when it was produced in 2017 as part of the Essential Theatre’s New Play Festival. The play has been (slightly) rewritten and retitled since then, and Cartersville’s Pumphouse Players has produced a respectable mounting of the piece, sharing it (ironically) with an online video format.
My biggest issue with this show is the video format itself. Shot from essentially three angles, the camera only occasionally lets us see “behind the eyes” of the characters. To their credit, this cast is often able to convey close-up quality subtleties even across the socially distant space between stage and camera. As often happens, the camera is not kind in “recreating” a live experience, with lines (and accents) often forced to “reach the back row.”
That being said, the genius of Ada Lovelace (and of Lauren Gunderson’s script) is very much center stage and is a welcome respite from all the “lowest common denominator” intelligence too many writers insist on giving their characters. Caitlyn Raye Keller gets under Ada’s skin, making her an energetic advocate for Babbage’s machine and, more impressively, an advocate for the role of women in marriage and in society. As her illness dampens her spirit, it never darkens her light.
As Babbage, Joel Rose is equally driven and impressive; he adds the requisite amount of period-specific pomposity and pride, but when he visibly struggles with his unexpected feelings for the much younger Ada, he displays a vulnerability that is heartbreaking.
Also in the cast is Ross McLeod as Lord Lovelace, Ada’s husband, who convincingly suppresses his “man’s due” expectations of marriage for the sake of Ada’s happiness. Stephanie Rhobotham tackles two roles here – Ada’s bitter mother Lady Byron, and Babbage’s friend Mary Somerville, giving equal justice to both roles. And in a late-in-the play appearance, Michael Davis brings forth the ghost of Lord Byron himself.
It is that last scene between Byron and Ada which really ties together all of Ms. Gunderson’s plot and theme threads – fathers and daughters, art and science, mathematics and music. The finale is a literal embodiment of the symbiosis of math and music, as the ghost of Ada is able to construct a melody using only the ones and zeros of her programming theory.
In truth, today’s dominance of computers in our lives is a direct legacy of Ada Byron Lovelace. Without her efforts there would be no NASA, no Video Games, np Facebook, no GPS, no Zoom, no Atlanta Theatre Buzz. That we are watching this production by means of equipment and programs that are part of that legacy is especially compelling.
Lauren Gunderson shows WHY she's the most-produced living playwright in America. Ada and the Engine is a sparkling look at another forgotten "Woman of Science," a well-researched, well-executed look at a specific period of history, complete with its own ethos and shortcomings, and peopled it with characters that dominate the stage. Ms. Gunderson writes like no other playwright, and the theatre is richer for her efforts.
And we are richer for Pumphouse Players sharing this play with us!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #PumphousePlayers #AdaAndTheEngine )
(*) Translation: LOGICAL INTUITIONS