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“Ada and the Engine” Delightfully Shares the “Herstory” of Computers

Review by Liz Eichler of “Ada and the Engine”: Know Theatre

If you haven’t heard the story of Ada Byron Lovelace, I wouldn’t be surprised.  She was a woman, born in an age in which her job was simply to marry well and bear children, not bringing attention to herself.  In fact, her whole life was about disconnecting with gossip that started before she was born, about her famous but absent father  (identified in the script as “Man”). Her mother turned her to book learning, logic and math,and she moved in social circles connecting with the brightest minds of the day. “Ada and the Engine” is the story of Ada and her relationship with Charles Babbage, credited as the founder of the computer. Know Theatre’s production beautifully brings to life not only Ada’s drive, but how society limited her, and how some scientists limit themselves.

Tess Talbot brings a wonderful energy to the role of Ada.  She is passionate about math and music as well as escaping her mother’s firm grasp. She shares the joy in discovering the enormous difference between zero and one, the theme of the play as well as the underpinnings of computer language. She is caught between zero and one, as an unmarried woman she is nothing, but gains respectability and title when she marries and has children, dropping her connection with Babbage. But children and her social role, however, drain her physically, and pulls her back toward zero. Back and forth between zero and one, within that space is the whole universe, she discovers.

Brian Griffin is a marvelous Charles Babbage, brilliant but difficult, prone to theory, but not very practical nor understanding of the politics of the age. He and Ada make a wonderful team, and although she is exuberant and prone to impulse, she appears practical. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Ada’s mother and tutor, both proper and firm Victorian women. Cary Davenport is the aristocratic Lord Lovelace and later revels in portraying Lord Byron.  The ensemble slips in and out of the scenes seamlessly as the action moves forward, using the large revolving doors, adding a mechanical energy. Andrew J. Hungerford directs and is also responsible for the set and lights. He again tops himself in scenery design, with his amazingly simple metallic machinery, echoing both a library and an engine. Douglas Borntrager adds sound and projections, including an interesting app you’ll hear about during the production. (Know Theatre again earns its reputation as a place to play and experiment!)

This is a joyful, well-told piece of herstory.  The play by Lauren Gunderson is strong, engaging and generally stays close to the published accounts of Ada’s life, until it takes off into another realm where Gunderson must rely on her imagination and storytelling to power her agenda. The production flies, as you just want to know more about Ada, and her relationship with Babbage. The musical elements in the second act are lovely, but the lighting felt limited, when perhaps it was a moment to turn it up to 11.

This is a piece of must-see storytelling—putting faces and names on the invention of the computer—equally enjoyable as a date-night for adults or as a lesson in STEAM education for teens and tweens.  “Ada and the Engine” continues through May 12.  For tickets contact knowtheatre.com.