‘Anne’ charms Bloomington stage

By John Lyle Belden

Life can be frustrating when you’ve got a big wild imagination and you are stuck in an orphanage or foster home doing chores and taking care of others. But suddenly, your dreams start to come true!

This is how we meet “Anne of Green Gables,” in a production of Constellation Stage & Screen (formerly Cardinal Stage) at Waldron Auditorium in Bloomington. The play by Catherine Bush adapts and condenses the celebrated Lucy Maud Montgomery novel to a quick-paced movie-length act perfect for the various children and tweens in the audience, just a little younger than the red-haired girl – played by IU student Alexa Norbeck – arriving at the village of Avonlea in beautiful Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Anne (don’t forget the “e”) is to live at Green Gables farm with late-middle-age siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (Greg Simons and Maria Walker). They had planned on adopting a boy, but before the error can be corrected, Anne charms her way into their lives. The cast also includes Mia Siffin as dramatic busybody Rachel Lynde and Diana, Anne’s “bosom friend;” David Hosei as Gilbert, Anne’s scholastic rival and enemy for mocking her hair; and Kenny Hertling in other roles, including teacher Mr. Phillips.

Norbeck presents Anne as a wild-eyed romantic, a bit melodramatic and prone to renaming things when what they were called seems too plain, but also relatable as she takes on life lessons without losing an ounce of her spirit. Siffin is a study of contrasts, wildly over-the-top to the delight of younger audience members as Rachel, yet sweet and best-friendly as Diana. Hosei presents Gilbert as a regular boy – not mean in his teasing and slowly finding he likes this smart and special girl, if she would only forgive him. Simons portrays a respectful father-figure, discovering the closest he would ever get to a daughter. Walker has an arc of growth in Marilla, as she learns that strict upbringing might not be best for the fire-haired force of nature she has come to love.

Direction is by Mallory Metoxen. The clever stage design by Erin Gautille is also noteworthy, made up of wooden boxes decorated like children’s toy blocks with furniture and other features painted on the sides.

Like the book, this play is fine for all ages, wonderful for children. Performances run through Nov. 27; get info and tickets at seeconstellation.org.

Cardinal celebrates woman whose love of numbers helped birth today’s tech

By John Lyle Belden

“Good women make for better men.”

This line, spoken by Ada Byron Lovelace in “Ada and the Engine,” the play by Lauren Gunderson presented by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington, is a good summation of the young Countess’s collaboration with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage, credited with inventing the precursor to the modern computer. He envisioned the “engine,” but she saw its true potential.

Ada (played by Megan Massie) was the only legitimate child of scandalous and legendary poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabella (Francesca Sobrer). He abandoned them when she was a baby, giving her little more than a verse she would treasure and a family stain upon her reputation.

Perhaps we can credit the rakish poet in a backhanded way for how Ada’s genius flowered, as her mother had her thoroughly schooled in mathematics in a vain attempt to keep her away from creative endeavors. Her voracious appetite for unlocking the mysteries of maths brings Ada into the orbit of Babbage (Eric Olson), who desperately seeks funds for completing his Difference Engine, which could revolutionize accounting by eliminating human error while handling large numbers in making accurate sums. As he and Ada converse, and later correspond, he realizes the machine could be modified and expanded to do more mathematical functions – the Analytical Engine.

Ada’s tutor, Mary Sommerville (Sobrer), warns Babbage he is too old for then-18 Ada, and especially not to invite the scandal many feared would follow her infamous family name. He insists he is only interested in intellectual stimulation, and she settles for a friendship in letters while accepting the courtship and proposal of Lord Lovelace (Kevin Aoussou).

The marriage does little to lessen the tension between Lovelace and Babbage, but they agree to let Ada write a translation of a paper on the Engine, complete with notes to clarify and explain its principles and capabilities – the Notes would not only be twice the length of the original paper, but also give applications and ideas, including a punch-card driven algorithm since credited as the first computer program, beyond what Babbage had envisioned. She even saw its number-crunching for other uses of numeric symbols, including musical notes.

Now, they just have to find some way to build it.

Gunderson’s focus in this drama, aside from Ada’s contributions to STEM, is on the likely relationship between her and Babbage. Historians might take issue with how close their friendship gets. Still, the story respects that given the pressures of British high society at the time, and the facts on record, any deeper love was unrequited. Yet there are some sparks here, which Massie and Olson masterfully wield in their moments alone. Sobrer’s Anabella, though meaning well, can’t help but play the tyrant in her constant diligence against the “Byron madness” that haunts her and her daughter. Aoussou portrays a man in a tough spot, but coming to understand his Ada does love him, as well as her Engine.

Aoussou also gives a nice cameo as Lord Byron himself.

An interesting stage floor, designed by Reuben Lucas, runs down the center of the theater, with audience seating on either side. Director Kate Galvin has the performances balanced with equal face time in each direction. Each end of the stage represents the two sides of Ada’s life: one the Victorian elegance of a British lady, the other a steampunk-inspired vision of Babbage’s world.

Equal parts inspiring and romantic, “Ada and the Engine” gives us a celebration of the lives of arguably the great-grandparents of the machine you are likely reading this on. Performances run through April 16 at Waldron Auditorium, 122 S. Walnut St., Bloomington. Get information and tickets (“pay what you will” pricing) at cardinalstage.org.