As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler. The score includes clever references, melodic and chromatic, to such past masters as Guthrie, Dylan, Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and, especially, Young, without undercutting the originality of Butler’s musical sound. The play’s subtitle, however—and, most notably, that word concert—is decidedly misleading.
Under the sure-handed direction of Jordan Fein, this show opens with Butler (who plays the title character) singing in a pleasingly gruff voice, accompanying himself on guitar, as though on the tiny stage of a country-western dive bar. The cozy, down-at-heels scenic design by Laura Jellinek exploits the intimacy of the Ars Nova performance space to make the audience feel part of the supposedly underground concert.
Butler is a formidable presence, who connects immediately with the audience and doesn’t so much sing as act his solos with the emotional intricacy of a seasoned musical-theater performer. He has long rust-colored hair, a frizzy beard, and a milky complexion. When lighting designer Barbara Samuels bathes him in a sepia glow, he resembles a figure from a Rembrandt painting. Butler is alone on stage for the first quarter hour and could carry a full evening with panache if called upon to do so.
As the five other cast members make their collective entrance, with saxophone, bass, accordion, and percussion, the proceedings explode with conflict, narrative energy, and a degree of theatricality emblematic of musical theater at its most enthralling. These five, including Parkland’s lost love, Beaux Weathers (Stacey Sargeant), are members of a band called the Future. Are they figures conjured from Rags’s memory? Figments of his imagination? Or, perhaps, holographic visitors from the past? In sci-fi, anything is possible. What’s important is that, joining Rags on stage, they accelerate the musical’s pace with a spirited hoedown that really ups the narrative ante.
Rags is a hillbilly of the 23rd century, born on Earth but well-traveled in the galaxy. His is a dystopian era in which free artistic expression and critical thinking are banned by a government that wields authority on earth and in outer space.
At age 14, Rags fled his hometown—Knoxville, Tennessee (which sounds pretty much like an Appalachian city of the present)—to escape a brutal, holy-roller father. Due to some teenage shenanigans, he landed in a labor camp on Mars, where he was befriended by “illegal intelligences.” Those new acquaintances—ultra-sensitive robots, constructed from body parts of cadavers, prostheses, and “neuro-circuits implanted in drainage pipes”—introduced him to their outlaw culture and a style of music influenced by the socially engaged songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
Rags explains that he has taken the stage to honor the musical legacy of Beaux, who was a member of the “constructed” minority. Intimacy between humans and ’bots like Beaux is illegal, so the two were forced to keep their love affair on the down-low (just as members of The Future had to perform their music in secret venues). In the years since Beaux was apprehended by the culture police and disappeared, Rags has been silent about their relationship and her art. Now he regrets that decision. “I shoulda been keeping Beaux’s music alive all this time,” he laments. “I’ve been doing Beaux and the Future wrong by letting their music go quiet.”
Rags Parkland is a canny cautionary tale about growing authoritarianism and the need for grassroots counteractivity. The dynamic cast—Rick Burkhardt, Tony Jarvis, Jessie Linden, and Debbie Christine Tjong, in addition to those named above—not only performs songs of The Future but recreates the terrifying world in which the band conducted its duck-and-cover career. “I turn around and I see / The places we have been,” sings the Future. “And I realize we’re making / The same old mistakes again.” Butler, the talented composer-lyricist-librettist of this piece, recognizes that humankind has a poor collective memory and doesn’t learn easily from the past. In creating Rags Parkland, he’s gambling that a captivating, toe-tapping fiction may be more persuasive than what’s in the history books.
Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future has been extended through Nov. 10 at Ars Nova (511 W. 54th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; and 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; no performance Oct. 29. The schedule for the final performances, Nov. 5 through Nov. 10, are as follows: 7 p.m. Nov. 5 and Nov. 7; 8 p.m. Nov. 8 through Nov. 10; and 5 p.m. Nov. 10. For information and tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit arsnovanyc.com.