Friday, February 13, 2009

Universal Robots Revised and Revisited

I should probably warn people that there are some parts of this entry that could be seen as spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Mac Rogers' Universal Robots takes a well-worn plot and premise from the pulp sci-fi stories from the 1940s and '50s - robots taking over the world - and elevates it to the level of Great Drama akin to works from such heavyweights as Chekov, Beckett, Pinter, or Albee.

Why am I so confident in making such a seemingly hyperbolic statement? I think anyone who's seen or read it will know I'm not exaggerating. In his original review of the play when it was originally staged in the summer of 2007, Martin Denton wrote:

"Rogers has used Karel Capek's famous play R.U.R. as inspiration for Universal Robots, along with some of the events of Capek's life and that of his brother Josef; this is no simple adaptation, though, but rather a sort of mashup of the original play, the Capeks' biographies, and a good deal of mid-20th century history, all filtered through a very contemporary horror/sci-fi sensibility. The result is a drama that's astute, ideological in the best possible way, and enormously compelling and entertaining."

Universal Robots is a pageant put on by a race (robots) about how they came into existence and flourished at the expense of another race (humans). Rogers has created an alternate history of the world about socially conscious/activist Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek (David Ian Lee) and his sister, Josephine (Jennifer Gordon Thomas) creating a play called The Drudges, similar to Capek's seminal play, Rossum's Universal Robots (which introduced the word and modern-day premise of "robots").

Of course, right after the opening of The Drudges, the Capek siblings are greeted by Helen (Esther Barlow), the daughter of a scientist that has indeed created the automata that they have written about. These automata, which Josephine dubs "robots," look just like humans, but can do the drudge and dangerous work that humans don't want to do.

Since the Capeks are good friends with the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia (David Lamberton), Rossum (Nancy Sirianni), the inventor of the robots, has approached them to convince the president to fund the project for mass production.

This provides an interesting prospect for Karel. If he agrees to help Rossum with the mass production and distribution of robots, it opens several ethical cans of worms that may be too big for him and the president to control. If he refuses, he's openly admitting that his desire for playwrights to be marginalized in society and his desire for massive social change has just been empty rhetoric.

So, robots are unveiled to the world. And said ethical cans of worms open, slowly at first, then at a faster and faster rate, until the human characters realize it's far too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

Then there's also the very moving subplot involving Josephine's interaction (relationship?) with the first fully functioning robot, Radius (Jason Howard). See, Radius was designed to look like a man named Radosh, a sweet and simple-minded owner of a café the Kapeks and their artist friends would meet at. Jo had feelings for Radosh, but were unrequited after a revolutionary blew up the café with Radosh in it. These scenes in particular, where Jo seeks - perhaps quixotically - for affection from Radius are touching and heartbreaking, especially when you consider where their relationship goes as the play progresses.

I saw the workshop production back in 2007 and thought it was the best play I had seen that year. It has been remounted with most of the original cast, but with a new director (Rosemary Andress, replacing Rogers who served as director of the 2007 workshop), a new set and some minor revisions in the script and is still headed to be one of the best shows I've seen in 2009.

It's simultaneously so dense yet doesn't feel overstuffed, filled with numerous subplots yet not remotely overwritten, intensely philosophical and thought provoking without once being heavy-handed or didactic, very fun without feeling frivolous. It has the perfect blend of high-minded art and pulpy genre fun.

How does Rogers & Company pull this off? I think because the philosophical, historical and spiritual elements never take place at the expense of the story. This also means you don't need to enter the theatre with a doctorate in mid-20th Century history or any knowledge of the Kapeks' work or biographies to follow the play. Sure, if you have either of those things they can add to the experience, but they're not essential.

Then there's the cast (which also includes Michelle O'Connor, Ridley Parson, Tarantino Smith and Ben Sulzbach), which is stellar. From O'Connor's narration to Howard's jaw-droppingly robotic voice to Lee's arrogant and naïve Karel to Parson's cocky American consultant urging the Czechoslovakian president to use the robots as soldiers to prevent World War II, everyone in the show sells the story, which again, is seemingly simple yet deceptively complex.

This truly is the stuff of Great Theatre (Title Case intended). For those who missed the workshop production, I can't stress enough that you really need to see this.

Universal Robots plays at the Manhattan Theatre Source until March 7. You can get your tickets here.

Trying to practice that robot voice,

James "Seriously, Jason, How Do You Do That?" Comtois

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