What if Benjamin Franklin invented a time machine?
No, that’s not the plot of the latest sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” It’s the premise behind “Chiaroscuro,” a new musical by the Cal Poly student production ensemble RSVP.
“Everybody’s a bit fascinated by our Founding Fathers,” explained Cal Poly professor Antonio G. Barata, the ensemble’s artistic director.
Set during the early years of the United States, the play centers on Franklin and his fellow Founding Fathers, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Together with their female counterparts, they shaped the way our nation views personal freedoms and public government, he said.
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Although coy and comical at times, “Chiaroscuro” addresses such weighty subjects as states’ rights, race relations and the national debt — issues that remain as relevant today as they were more than 200 years ago.
“The big ones back then are in many ways the ones that still haunt America,” Barata said.
Barata created RSVP more than 15 years ago as an outlet for students seeking new performing arts opportunities.
“I wanted to engage students fully,” explained Barata, who teaches sound design, theory and composition at Cal Poly.
In RSVP, students control every aspect of a theatrical production, from hanging lights to sewing costumes to buying food for the reception. They write their own dialogue, compose their own music and design and build their own sets, simultaneously serving as actors, directors and stagehands.
Most of RSVP’s members come from Barata’s sound design and music classes, he said.
Over the years, the ensemble has explored several genres, including opera, musicals and abstract avant-garde theater.
Lately, Barata said, he’s been focused on a series of productions that answer the question “What if?”
Last year’s production, “Emergent Forms,” explored what would happen if “La boheme” composer Giacomo Puccini had written one final, long-lost opera.
“We created this story that involved how it changed people’s lives,” Barata said.
According to Barata, inspiration for “Chiaroscuro” struck last year when he noticed a book about the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs at a Santa Barbara bookstore. He began pondering how the views held by those men and women have affected present-day politics.
“Chiaroscuro” focuses on that core group of 18th-century movers and shakers, including U.S. presidents John Adams (Max Woodcock) and Thomas Jefferson (Scott Charvet), first lady Abigail Adams (Whitney Westbrook) and the slave woman many historians believe was Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemings (Theresa Riforgiate).
Barata himself plays Franklin, who he described as “the foremost scientist of his day.”
In the play, the renowned statesman adds “time machine” to a long list of previous inventions including bifocals, the lightning rod and the Franklin stove.
The first to use the device is Franklin’s fictional mistress, Annabelle Lucy Flounce (Emily Allyn), who quickly learns that time travel has a marvelous side effect: It makes you younger.
When a successive trip lands Annabelle in the middle of a bloody Civil War battlefield, however, she discovers that the future is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Convinced that the United States will destroy itself without intervention, Franklin decides to journey into the future. Meanwhile, Abigail Adams and Sally Hemings concoct a plan to send their own loved ones to join him.
In addition to familiar figures such as Alexander Hamilton (Zack Newman), the first secretary of the Treasury, we encounter forgotten heroes of the American Revolution — such as Polish-Jewish immigrant Haym Solomon (Matt Abela), a key financier of the Revolutionary War, and Charles Carroll of Carrolton (Austin Gibbins), the longest lived signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
Evan Brown, Jake Goble and Shelby Micklos round out the 12-member cast. The crew comprises 10 students.
“Chiaroscuro” features several musical numbers that examine the emotion behind the action. Each character has an individual musical signature. Sally sings in a jazzy, bluesy style, while Annabelle’s songs have a sophistication inspired by 18th-century classical music.
Both women would have been societal outsiders in colonial America, Barata said, but RSVP’s play puts them at center stage.
“It’s the underdogs that make history happen,” he said.
According to the professor, “Chiaroscuro” takes its name from the time-honored artistic technique used to create depth and volume.
“We are going to bring things out of history and give them shape,” Barata said.