Theater review by Raven Snook
What form will the resistance take 250 years from now? According to Andrew R. Butler's slyly provocative new musical, it will sound a lot like the past. The struggle against oppression may change, but the songs remain the same.
For Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, director Jordan Fein and set designer Laura Jellinek have reconfigured Ars Nova into an immersive, three-quarter-round cabaret for the title troubadour's comeback concert on Earth after a decade of hard labor in a prison colony on Mars. With a shaggy mane of red hair, a nasal twang and a haunted look in his eyes, Rags recounts his life of art, activism and incarceration, eulogizing the synthetic friends he lost along the way—until, suddenly, they're resurrected onstage from his memory, joyfully singing and playing alongside him.
Sci-fi folk may sound like an oxymoron, but it's actually a decades-old underground genre called filk. Butler is a master at fusing futuristic concepts like the civil rights of cyborgs with anthems that spark righteous anger and empathy, and he knows his stuff: Folkies will appreciate the Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan influences, while nerds will note the hat tips to Blade Runner (or more precisely, the Philip K. Dick book on which the films are based).
Butler has been developing this show for eight years, and that dedication has paid off with a glorious, deeply felt score that moves beyond folk to include R&B and classic rock. His talented costars—Rick Burkhardt on accordion, Tony Jarvis on sax, Jessie Linden on drums and Debbie Christine Tjong on bass—have contributed to the rich arrangements, and manage to conjure individual characters with limited stage time. But powerhouse vocalist Stacey Sargeant, as Rags's illegal lost love Beaux Weathers, is the show's heart and soul; when she's ripped away, we feel his anguish. Rags may be singing about the fights of tomorrow, but Butler is clearly planted on today's battleground.
Ars Nova (Off Broadway). By Andrew R. Butler. Directed by Jordan Fein. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.