The songs of the future sound a lot like the songs of the past in this new musical concert by Andrew R. Butler at Ars Nova. We feel that from the opening moments when the shaggy Butler takes the stage as Rags Parkland, a banjo-strumming troubadour who looks like he's just emerged from a coal mine. The opening number, "Apocalypse in Tennessee," reinforces this first impression, with jaunty guitar accompaniment and socially probing lyrics that evoke the work of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. But first impressions aren't everything, and Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future turns out to be one of the most surprisingly delightful and imaginative musicals of 2018.
The New York theater is rife with people bearing fancy arts degrees and performing hillbilly acts, secure in the knowledge that no one will bother accusing them of appropriating the culture of poor mountain folk. Happily, Rags Parkland does cultural appropriation the way it ought to be done, which is to remix, reimagine, and reposition preexisting forms to create something wholly original.
Like stars emerging after a sunset, we only realize the immense wonder of Butler's galaxy as the evening progresses. Little by little, he reveals the events that led up to this return engagement at the Over/Under, a club run by human proprietor Gill (Tony Jarvis). Not all of the characters in Rags Parkland are human — at least fully. And "the Future" refers not just to the latter 23rd century in which the story takes place, but the band Rags once performed in with Rick (Rick Burkhardt), Ess (Debbie Christine Tjong), Devo (Jessie Linden), and lead singer Beaux Weathers (Stacey Sargeant). By playing their songs, he resurrects the band on the night of their final performance.
Butler and director Jordan Fein tantalizingly tease out the world beyond the room: It's a place where technological advances in robotics have led to the creation of both cyborgs and fully constructed beings. This has also led to a backlash, with governments cracking down on illegal "constructeds" and an underground railroad of sympathizers spiriting them to safety. These human collaborators risk hard labor on the Martian penal colony.
Powerful performances make these circumstances feel real, with Butler leading the way as our shy, scarred, but still outspoken main character. Sargeant is positively electric as the bionic frontwoman, and Jarvis maintains the unflappable cool of someone who has regular run-ins with the law and always lives to tell the tale. These six immensely talented musicians come together to form a really spectacular band, performing Butler's catchy original songs with love and a sense of ownership (members of the cast are also credited with arrangements and additional music).
Set designer Laura Jellinek has created an intimate underground cabaret, with the audience cramming into every corner of the small Ars Nova Theater. Mikaal Sulaiman has expertly balanced the sound so that the lyrics are clear. Barbara Samuels achieves an impressive amount of lighting effects with scoop lights and Edison bulbs. Occasionally, one naked bulb on a string will light up, alerting us to the presence of an intruder. The room goes dark and we wait in silence for Gill to give the all-clear. These moments create a sense of intimacy among the cast and audience, as only shared transgression can. With Andy Jean's futuristic yet not outlandish costumes, the effect is more secret treehouse than Starship Enterprise. We feel like we're all in this together.
Truly excellent science fiction has always empowered audiences to draw a line from the real world to the one depicted: Considering that we live in a time in which certain people are already deemed "illegal" and the fear of the unfamiliar is enough to provoke popular support for draconian law enforcement, Rags Parkland doesn't seem that outlandish, nor does the future feel so far away.