CRITIC'S PICK: Ada & the Engine at Know Theatre

Romance and science intertwine in this 19th-century tale of Ada Byron Lovelace, the first computer programmer and daughter of flamboyant poet Lord Byron

Apr 17, 2018 at 12:22 pm
click to enlarge Tess Talbot in Ada & the Engine - Photo: Dan R. Winters
Photo: Dan R. Winters
Tess Talbot in Ada & the Engine

Ada & the Engine, written by playwright Lauren Gunderson and now onstage at Know Theatre, outlines the story of titular character Ada Byron Lovelace, the headstrong, bubbly and whip-smart daughter of the famed Romantic-era poet Lord Byron, as she reconciles her unique cravings for both science and propriety during the British Industrial Revolution. A mixture of love story and historical fiction, the play details the complicated relationship between Ada and her friend and soulmate Charles Babbage, who is often referred to as “the father of computers.”

Ada is strongly encouraged to study mathematics and logic by her overbearing mother, Lady Annabella Byron, as an antidote to her father’s flamboyant and romantic ways. Ada finds herself consumed by her love of numbers, machinery and all things science. When she first encounters Babbage, inventor of the first mechanical computer (known as the “Difference Engine”) at a party hosted at his home, sparks fly and minds whir in a fateful conversation leading to life-altering inventions and devastating heartbreak. Ada & the Engine, which examines history and the intersection of poetry and science, is ultimately a celebration of the women who dared to imagine new futures involving those pursuits.

The women steal the stage at Know, which beautifully reflects the intent of the show. The production is driven by Tess Talbot’s captivating portrayal of Ada. Talbot brings a manic energy to the character and presents Ada as a dynamic young woman with a proven ability for love and communication, as well as an indisputable aptitude for math and science. The infectious passion Talbot pours into Ada spreads throughout the ensemble and into the audience, which helps hold their attention through the moments of dense mathematical exchanges.

Playing dual roles as Lady Annabella Byron and Mary Sommerville, Ada’s friend and mentor in mathematics, Annie Fitzpatrick expertly brings two wildly different characters to life. Through distinctions between each one’s body language, voice placement and speaking patterns, Fitzpatrick delivers a nuanced performance that creates two strong characters — the first as a rigidly composed, overprotective mother and the second as a confident and boundary-pushing scientist.

Behind the women stand Brian Griffin as Charles Babbage and Cary Davenport as Lord Lovelace, Ada’s eventual husband. They are written by Gunderson to be characters as strikingly complex as their female counterparts, and Griffin and Davenport bring a progressive nuance to both men. As Babbage, Griffin mirrors Ada’s passion for numbers and displays both a softness and a darkness in the inventor, who must confront hard truths about his heart and intellect.

Davenport conveys the subtlety of a man who is very clearly the intellectual inferior of his wife, but who also works to control and conceal his pride to take the role as a supporting and loving husband.

One of the most impressive elements of the show as a whole is the sparse but striking set. Director (and scenic and lighting designer) Andrew Hungerford excellently uses the space he designed; the actors don’t leave a single area untouched.

There is beauty in the simplicity of the minimalist set, which features various levels and very little furniture. Lining the back wall are thin metal bars positioned directly in front of the cyclorama lights, which display a wide array of colors to help set the tone of each scene. But the most impressive aspect of the design is the metal doors in the back that swing open silently and seamlessly, solidifying the utilitarian nature of the mechanically inspired set. Overall, the various levels work well to help the actors brilliantly display power dynamics and relationships.

The audience connects with this show in a visceral way. One marked moment, just before the end of the first act, elicited a chorus of “ooohs” from the audience, which buzzed with excitement as the lights came on for intermission. Ada & the Engine draws in its audience with unbridled passion and fascinating creativity, making sure to give the narrative to Ada and let people know what a forgotten pioneer she was in the field of science.

Ada & the Engine is at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine) through May 12. Tickets/more info: