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Universal Robots: Theater review by Helen Shaw
The program for the latest Mac Rogers science-fiction spectacle contains a cautionary note: “While this play contains some names and circumstances from the life of Karel Čapek, it is not intended to serve as biography.” The warning's not really necessary, since the ambitious play Universal Robots—a revival of Rogers's 2009 Off-Off epic—includes lifelike androids, a cyborg army and, in its biggest imaginative stretch, a president who consults with playwrights. We don't expect facts from Rogers; we follow him for seriously minded nerd-fi allegory. If you're looking for deeply thought genre theater, he's the major voice in his field.
So the good news first: On the textual front, Universal Robots is impressive. It folds elements from a landmark source (Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R) into complicated shapes, interpolating both historical event and a Pygmalion romance to form something truly multivalent and rich. The Czech original drew a clear parallel with workers' revolutions: a robot race destroys their masters, sparing only a man they recognize as a laborer. Rogers elaborates the parable; he includes dilemmas about gender, art, technology and our modern politics, then does some tricky dramaturgical origami with framing stories and metadrama.
The begins begins as a sweet, talky story about Čapek (Jorge Cordova) and his sister Jo (Hanna Cheek), well-connected playwrights who make pieces very like the historical Čapek's. When a scientist (Tandy Cronyn) creates a functioning android, her daughter Helena (Brittany N. Williams) approaches the writers, hoping they will intercede for them with president Masaryk (Sara Thigpen). The two Čapeks become crucial “ethical advisors” to Masaryk, which means they storm and rage at each other as the predictable tsunami comes closer to shore. Intimations of disaster are everywhere, hints that the struggle for mankind has, in fact, already been lost.
Much of the writing is strong, but by comparison with Rogers's excellent Honeycomb Trilogy, the storytelling is less assured, requiring story-theater interjections that slow velocity. It's also difficult to overlook the rather shambolic physical presentation. Despite a generous hosting relationship with the Sheen Center, the production doesn't look at home. Sandy Yaklin's set units seem stranded there, so wall-units painted in Futurist patterns (Rebecca Comtois and Pete Boisvert did the scenic graphic design) look more high-school Drama Club than they might in a different space.
Gideon Productions shows have always had a hint of the enthusiast-amateur about them—director Jordana Williams casts from a wide range, and even in the superb Honeycomb Trilogy,the second rank of actors was far below the first. In Robots, though, even the first rank seem uneasy. Yet for some, this doesn't matter. A real sense of community surrounds Gideon shows; the thorny issues, sci-fi sources and thematic complexity attract genre-lovers who seem able to forgive much. Universal Robots preselects its audience. Indeed, you may already be programmed to love this show.—Helen Shaw
Sheen Center for Thought & Culture (Off-Off Broadway). By Mac Rogers. Directed by Jordana Williams. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.