The design concept for “Futurity” – a show you could describe as a Civil War sci-fi musical, if you wanted to both inform and confuse readers – was picked up, piece by piece, at junk yards, yard sales and antiques shows. That’s where Eric Farber, drummer for the Lisps (the folk-roots-rock group that conceived and performs this strange new musical that’s making its world premiere at Oberon in Cambridge), started assembling his trash menagerie of Industrial Age mechanical devices that are both archaic and futuristic.
Think of the gears of an old grandfather clock. Think of the irregular surface on a music box’s cylinder, which, when wound, turns to pluck out a modest tune. Think of the metal mechanisms of a steam-powered train that create percussive music as well as motion. And if you’re thinking of “Hugo,” the recent Martin Scorsese film featuring an automaton, you’re in the right ballpark.
David Israel Reynoso, seven-year resident of Brookline and Brighton Center, and both the set and costume designer for “Futurity,” acknowledges that “Hugo” and “Futurity” share a love of the mystery and esthetic beauty of gear-driven devices. The kids call it steampunk.
“It must be something in the air,” he says.
After Farber rounded up his junk-yard artifacts, it was time for Reynoso to incorporate that feel into the overall design of the show.
“I’m getting to appreciate those raw mechanics,” he says, catching a quick breather as the show races toward opening night. “So much of modern technology is veiled in mystery. Computers can do these amazing things, but they’re really beyond understanding, presented in this glossy package.” But he says that when you take a look inside something that’s mechanically operated, you find a sculptural beauty that makes sense on an intuitive level. It’s like the difference between an iPod and a phonograph.
“The iPod is so much more convenient,” he says, “but it’s so much more beautiful to watch a phonograph play a record.”
What’s the story that’s being told with the help of these design elements? You won’t find easy answers here.
“Futurity” uses songs by the Lisps to help tell the tale of a Civil War soldier who, distraught by the bloodshed he witnesses on the battlefield, dreams of a steam-powered invention that could create peace and hope. He shares this passion, via long-distance correspondence, with the daughter of Lord Byron.
As a designer of the show, Reynoso has faced some tough challenges. Since the show is staged within the intimate confines of the club-like Oberon, it’s hard to represent the vast outdoor open space of a battlefield, especially with the audience right on top of the performers. When Reynoso suggested incorporating the blank slate of a big rusted metal billboard, the band loved it. It fits the feel of the show, and yet it creates a feeling of openness.
“Futurity” is the latest in a series of shows that Reynoso has been able to help design at the American Repertory Theater. He got his first chance with “The Keening.”
“It was a one-woman show with one costume,” he says with his characteristic lack of ego. “I think they figured, ‘How bad can he be?’”
Not bad at all. Reynoso has also worked for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, the Lyric Stage Company of Boston and he even contributed to “Sleep No More,” a lauded show that won an Obie Award special citation for design. He thinks Boston is a great place for designers. Not only is the theater community very active, he’s appreciated the chance to experiment.
“I’m so grateful to be at the ART,” says Reynoso, 31, who met his wife when they were both theater students at Boston University. “It’s a great place to explore. I have felt that liberty here. You take the ball and run.”
And right now, he’s running to work, where he knows audiences won’t be moved by a story simply about machines. Beneath the surface of these clicking, clacking metal components, there beats the heart of a very human story.
“There’s something very beautiful about the workings of a mechanical machine,” he says. “It’s like the way a human body works. It’s pulsing with life within.”
FUTURITY Performed by the American Repertory Theater at Oberon, 2 Arrow St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through April 15; $25 and up; 617-547-8300.