THE FIRST SCENE of Jordan Harrison's futura is wonderful: A professor (Lori Larsen) lectures on the history of typeface, introducing various fonts and explaining their aesthetics and evolution. It's interesting material, presented engagingly, and a natural fit for letterpress-happy Portland. But wait—what's that noise thrumming in the background of the professor's speech? It's "ozone stabilizers"? Uh oh. We're in the future.
This doesn't bode well.
Some background: I saw a staged reading of futura at the JAW playwrighting festival last summer. Afterward, I wrote, "The first half was great—a funny, informative, engaging lecture about the history of fonts (really). Then it turned into a not terrifically original dystopian sketch of a text-free future. I hope the final production is more of the first half, and less of the second."
But the pendulum swung hard the other direction, and the fully staged production presented here by Portland Center Stage is a sci-fi'd-out dystopian parable about the death of print, with a script that reads like last year's lit blog conversations as processed by a playwright who's just discovered Ray Bradbury.
In the future, the books have all been burned, paper is illegal, and no one knows how to write anymore. Ebooks that allowed readers to ad "tags" and "comments" gradually degraded the integrity of digital books; now world literature is so compromised that the original versions of books are completely unavailable.
The professor reveals some of this information in her lecture about typeface, before her presentation is abruptly interrupted and she's kidnapped by two anti-government terrorists. Her clumsy captors think she has information about the whereabouts of a mythical device called a "Zero Drive," rumored to contain original copies of all the world's books. I won't ruin the ending for you, though it's sorely tempting—suffice to say that the primacy of physical books is established once and for all.
There are real concerns facing print media, and people are right to worry about the future of the medium they love—as I type this, news just broke about 31 layoffs at Powell's Books, for example. The effect of ebooks on the publishing industry is worth discussing, and it's equally worth considering the sagacity of accepting a reading environment in which Amazon can yank books off our Kindles at any time. These are legit concerns, counterbalanced by the genuine ease and pleasure people derive from their ebooks. But futura is not interested in having a discussion; it's interested in pushing a narrative agenda rooted in narrow, technophobic hysteria, in which ebooks=bad books. Worse, it's an agenda utterly reliant on worn-out science-fiction tropes—for all playwright Harrison's hand-wringing about the future of books, he doesn't seem to have spent much time in the Gold Room. (That's the sci-fi section of Powell's, to you non-nerds out there.) Harrison's faceless bad guys are known as "The Company." The massive book burning is euphemistically known as "The Great Collection." This sort of boring, boilerplate writing offers no intrinsic justification for Harrison's basic project: updating Fahrenheit 451 for a Kindle age.
Portland Center Stage has done some truly boundary-pushing work in recent years—the great experiment that was Nancy Keystone's Apollo, for example, or even the JAW festival itself, which fosters the development of new scripts. They've also leveraged social media more effectively than any other arts organization in town—comments, tags, and all. For a company that is in so many ways so forward thinking, Futura feels like a step backward. One has to question the wisdom of a medium that's constantly called upon to defend its cultural relevance (theater, I'm looking at you) aligning itself with such facile, backward-looking nostalgia.