“Hello. My name is Rags Parkland. Thanks for comin’. I’m gonna sing some songs for ya.” These are the opening lines of Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, currently playing at Ars Nova. They are as much a piece with the grungy, stripped-down playing space as they are with the unassuming ginger (creator Andrew R. Butler) speaking them. You might think you’re in a Greenwich Village dive bar circa 1962 except for lyrics about leaving the Earth and electric sheep and song titles like “Android Love Song” and “Talkin’ Mars Dust Blues.” As a matter of fact, this self-billed “science-fiction folk-concert musical” takes place about 300 years in the future, and Rags Parkland may or may not be an android himself.
The Bob Dylan-meets-Blade Runner aesthetic of Rags Parkland seems broad at first blush, especially coming from the man behind satiric feminist PSA “Why You Should Never Waste a Boner” and Bon Iver parody “Belfies Are Selfies of Your Butt.” A streak of dark humor runs through the play, but its message is dead serious and perennially timely. There’s no story to spoil, but to describe the evening’s turns and divagations in too much detail is to steal a little of its flame. In brief: Mars is a penal colony; androids, known as “Constructeds,” were given legal rights but are still scorned by society; consciousness is transferable between Constructeds; the U.S. has broken into individual republics; Rags used to be part of a band that included Beaux, the love of his life (Stacey Sargeant), on vocals, Devo (Jessie Linden) on drums, Ess (Debbie Christine Tjong) on bass, Rick (Rick Burkhardt) on accordion, and occasionally club owner Gill (Tony Jarvis) on woodwinds. When the band joins Rags on stage in the extended flashback that makes up the bulk of the evening, Rags fades into the background, only to be drawn back forward at the end through love and loss. Rags Parkland traces, in a scant 90 minutes, nothing less than the birth of an artist.
Heady stuff for a sci-fi folk concert, but Rags is never ponderous or morose. It reveals its ideological stakes methodically, milking tension out of sudden bursts of theatrical energy or world-building detail. Performers share knowing looks that reveal decades of intimacy and trust. A bass clarinet becomes the sexiest, most mellifluous instrument ever pressed between lips. A single bare light bulb flashes and the audience collectively stops breathing. Director Jordan Fein moves his performers with an almost invisible fluidity, disguising key emotional or narrative beats in the usual concert banter and interplay.
There’s nothing that makes me less eager to contribute to the emotional exchange between audience and performers than coercive audience “participation,” which luckily only makes a brief appearance in one number here. Beyond transgressing my rigid code of interpersonal behavior, though, the move feels superfluous because the play itself does such a good job of establishing themes of community and belonging. The flashback performance takes place underground, both literally and figuratively; by just being there, Beaux warns the audience, we run the risk of being found guilty of “applauding and appreciating illegal intelligences.” As the play’s heart, Beaux is responsible for most clearly outlining its utopian bent: “We’re all kinds, really, and proud of it, but what we all have in common is that the people who run this republic think we shouldn’t exist.” The transferring of “intelligences” between bodies is a metaphor for the fluid nature of identity. Androids can even be gender non-specific; Rags refers to an old Constructed friend as “they.” Such metaphors fall apart if you try to overlay them on contemporary notions of identity, and the play risks flattening all forms of otherness into one monolithic capital-I Idea, but the play’s metal heart is in the right place.
Most importantly, the music rocks. Butler writes in multiple genres from folk to funk, and even gifts the audience two versions of the play’s most haunting ballad, “Stella Charlemagne,” about a girl who discovers she has been Constructed all along without knowing it. When Rags sings the song in the present, it hints at Beaux’s fate; when Beaux sings it in the past, it’s dramatic irony made Greek tragedy. The cast’s musicianship is uniformly stellar, and if sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman’s crystalline mix strips too much grit from their playing, perhaps we can assume that’s just how music sounds in the future.
Speaking of Greek tragedy, the play’s exploration of the cyclical nature of human folly is not too far removed from the inter-generational traumas that so fascinated Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. “I see the places we’ve been and I realize we’re making the same old mistakes again,” Rags laments over his plaintive solo guitar. Yet Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future is not about fixing mistakes, really. It’s about realizing when the time for fixing mistakes has passed and choosing to live anyway: truthfully, expansively, artfully. As certain characters approach their fate, the band decides with only a look to play as loudly and indifferently as possible. It’s a majestic moment in a play of small moments. Rags Parkland is one of the few political pieces I’ve seen in the last two years to move beyond facile platitudinizing and offer genuine insight. Some may ultimately find the play’s messaging confusing or defeatist, but I was seduced by its argumentation. Between our burning planet and the worldwide rise of neo-fascism, maybe it’s time to think less about stopping the tide than about helping each other survive it. If there is no tomorrow, the least we can do is throw our middle fingers in the air and fucking play like it.