Generic Ensemble Company's The Future of Ismael

This stage adaptation of Siri Gurudev's novel creates a striking sci-fi society but never finds its beating heart

To me, a sci-fi narrative is only as strong as the humanity that's inspired it. Even as futuristic tales transport us to faraway galaxies, removing us from our current political realities by thousands, if not millions, of years, the most impactful stories remain grounded by our earthly experiences (our pleasures, fears, pains, et al.).

For The Future of Ismael, a stage adaptation of the 2017 novel, by Colombian-born writer Siri Gurudev, the Generic Ensemble Company brings together a cast of trans and nonbinary performers to embrace science fiction's human side. With strong themes of bodily autonomy, rebellion, and community throughout, Ismael amplifies historically disenfranchised voices while imagining them in empowering new ways.

Set in a turbulent dystopian society, the show's nonlinear narrative follows young, kindhearted individual Ismael as they fall for charismatic performance artist/rebel Nahdi, sparking a relationship that forces both partners to look deep within themselves, and Ismael to, ultimately, take charge of their own destiny.

Gurudev's script creates universal appeal via its powerful depictions of love and friendship (not to mention a wealth of neon-tinted action sequences). This balance between the far-out and the familiar is aptly handled by GenEnCo Artistic Director kt shorb, whose direction keeps Ismael moving at a thriller-movie pace.

For a story chock-full of lasers, gadgets, and other sci-fi goodies, Ismael features a set design that's surprisingly minimal, leaving onstage action to shape the show's vibrant world.

Technically, the presentation is most impressive in the way that Jess O'Rear's sound design suggests a clean, efficient future. Frequently, pantomimed gadgets are accompanied by the precisely timed beep-boop of sound cues, which not once seem to miss their mark. This competent combination of tech and blocking (credit to board operator Kihwa Nam and shorb, respectively) do wonders to establish a world where flashy tech isn't a novelty, but the norm.

Contrasted with these smooth moments of futuristic advancement are striking scenes of physical intimacy, portrayed via silhouettes projected against a scrim. Choreographed by Michael J. Love and brought to life by lighting designer Shelby Gebhart, these fluid movement numbers imbue Ismael with a primal energy in a future defined by technological innovation.

Unfortunately, for a show so deeply layered with passion, the performance aspect of Ismael often feels disjointed. In the title role, Elián Sweeten does an admirable job of tackling Ismael's complexities, but the actor never quite captures the inner turmoil and curiosity that make the character dynamic. For this reason, Sweeten seems unprepared to act against their enthusiastic romantic opposite.

Delivered with fantastic physicality and charisma, Tuyên Thái's show-stealing turn as Nadhi offers fleeting glimpses of the show's true dramatic potential. Similarly, as outspoken political figure Yune, Adrian Clark anchors the second act with a confident performance. But it still isn't enough to lift up the performers around them.

GenEnCo's The Future of Ismael impresses with its purposeful pace, solid writing, and eye-catching visuals, but it ultimately lacks a beating heart to tie it all together. The result is a show that unintentionally evokes the detached, robotic side of sci-fi more often than it does warm familiarity. Though it could stand to be more cohesive, there are still plenty of inspired elements in the broad futuristic portrait that GenEnCo paints. Ultimately, the many unique steps that shorb's team has taken to tell a brave, inventive story make Ismael worth digging through for its gems.

The Future of Ismael

Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
Through Nov. 23
Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.

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Generic Ensemble Company, GenEnCo, kt shorb, Siri Gurudev, Jess O'Rear, Michael J. Love, Shelby Gebhart, Elián Sweeten, Tuyen Thái, Adrian Clark

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