Universal Robots

Photo crediT: Deborah Alexander
Universal Robots
Written by Mac Rogers
Directed by Jordana Williams
Presented by Gideon Productions The Sheen Center, NYC
June 3-26, 2016 (special performances: parents' matinee, 6/12; audio described for the visually impaired, 6/15; ASL interpreted, 6/23)

Contemporary theater is not exactly bursting at the seams with works in the science fiction genre. With a new production of Mac Rogers' 2009 Universal Robots, Rogers and Jordana Williams, the writer and director respectively of last year's acclaimed extraterrestrial invasion play cycle The Honeycomb Trilogy, reunite to continue bucking that trend. Universal Robots uses multigeneric Czech writer Karel Čapek's influential 1920 play R.U.R., commonly translated as Rossum's Universal Robots, "as a point of departure for an original speculative drama," borrowing some situations and concepts while crafting an alternate history that differs from our own in some smaller ways (real-life Čapek's brother and writing partner Josef becomes Josephine) and some much larger ones that we won't spoil the fun of finding out here. Though Čapek's life and corpus provide the intertextual focus, audiences will also be put in mind of the works of writers including Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, as well as of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, shades of which permeate not only the often Futurist aesthetic of the set but also the play's consideration of the means of production.

Universal Robots begins in Czechoslovakia a few years after its founding in 1918. Karel (Jorge Cordova), his sister Jo (Hanna Cheek), and his literary friends Vaclavek (Tarantino Smith) and Salda (Greg Oliver Bodine) meet every Friday in a cafe owned by Radosh (Jason Howard) to debate art, politics, and other Big Ideas. Their circle is joined on occasion by Tomas Masaryk (Sara Thigpen), the president of their "infant nation." Vaclavek criticizes Karel as a counter-revolutionary and a propagandist puppet of the President for his refusal to accept socialism as a viable option. The President, meanwhile, believes that government must be a form of Christian charity, and argues that the atheist Karel is really a Christian himself underneath it all. All of this discussion leads to a debate on the relative merits of fantastical and realistic theater, which in turns leads to a play by the Čapeks that imagines the consequences of an artistic class supported by a drudge class created by pills taken by expectant mothers.

Life -- or, artificial life -- imitates art when Helena Rossum (Brittany N.Williams), a fan of Karel's and the daughter of a pair of scientists, appears at the cafe with a robot. The automata is pushed inside in a wooden wheelchair with a white cloth covering its head, looking like nothing so much as Hamm from Beckett’s Endgame, an appropriate echo given the emphasis in both plays on servitude and the importance of storytelling in/and memorialization. Just as, historically, Josef Čapek was responsible for R.U.R. being the first text to employ the word robot -- derived from the Czech robots, meaning forced labor or, metaphorically, drudgery in its current usage -- Rogers' Jo lands on the term to replace Drudge, automata, or creature. Karel advocates to the end for depersonalizing language, including a ban on first-person or gendered pronouns, in order to maintain the distinction between the robots and humans, and it is interesting to note that it works for the audience, too, at least until it doesn't.

We learn that Helen's father is dead, and her mother, a driven, pure scientist who goes simply by Rossum (Tandy Cronyn) is working on continuously improving these robots (which are what we would probably call androids) and needs funding, but wants it to be from the "right" people. With the President's approval, Peroutka (Neimah Djourabchi), a scientist and friend of the Čapeks, joins Rossum's project, and the Čapeks themselves become its ethics advisors. Unsurprisingly, ethics becomes a central concern once mass production begins. The steadily increasing learning and sensory abilities of the robots engender increasingly thorny issues that range from the interpersonal and emotional to the roles of and in labor (one short question asked about robots for pedophiles could probably support its own two-hour play), and these issues come to a head as the Nazi threat looms and they are visited by Bernard Baruch (Greg Oliver Bodine), ostensibly negotiating on behalf of FDR and the United States government, but also there on behalf of his fellow Jews. Regarding what follows, we will say only that Rossum’s robots turn out to be too much of a success.

Over the course of Universal Robots, these developments cause Karel and Jo to grow apart, and Jo becomes the true ethical voice as some of the robots move towards their "finished" form. The early cafe arguments over whether violence against an Other is an unavoidable mechanism of historical change (Masaryk's government massacred its opponents, but Masaryk knows that Vaclavek's socialist revolution would begin with the same tactics) find parallels in the play’s late stages. Soldiers and how they are used and discarded form a set of parallels both with our historical present (extending to PTSD) and with the play’s other laborers. At least some of these connections would suggest that certain aspects of history are cyclical, and the play introduces both the idea that the inventors, the "brilliant freaks," are the ones who truly change history, not politicians or playwrights, and the idea that the most dangerous person is just such a dreamer when he or she is possessed of the power to realize his or her dream.

The gender-blind casting of Masaryk creates in her conflict with Rossum an extra textual effect of two powerful women each fighting for such a dream, and both are excellent at projecting strength and purpose under tremendous burdens. Jo is the heart of the play in more than one sense, and Hanna Cheek turns in a subtle, nuanced, and affecting performance in the role. Jason Howard, in addition to playing the steady, admiring Radosh, forges a similarly impressive, physically detailed, and notably evolving performance as the robot Radius. Jorge Cordova creates a charismatic Karel who loves his art, his family, and his country equally; his fellow intellectuals; Nikki Andrews-Ojo's imposing robot, Sulla; and the rest of the coterie of robots are likewise well-played.

Universal Robots combines allegory, allusion, humor, and propulsive storytelling to fashion a sweeping, almost Shakespearean sci-fi experience. Give your robot avatar the day off and go see this production for yourself. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler