If worries about artificial intelligence and the impending robot apocalypse are keeping you up at night, you may be gratified to know that Czech author Karel Capek was almost 100 years ahead of you… and The Terminator. Puzzle Piece Theatre has dusted off Capek’s 1921 play, “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)” and given it a thoroughly Modernist treatment that is more fun than it has any right to be. Note that this is NOT a comedy. Capek was warning humanity about the dangers of technology and the price of a soulless, progress-at-any-price mentality. “R.U.R.” deals with the total, utter extinction of the human species—an annihilation provoked by greed, violence, arrogance and a misplaced faith in science.
Not your usual fun night out–and yet, this show is a total blast.
Artistic Director D.B. Schroeder embraces the over-the-top themes and language of Capek’s script by giving it an authentically melodramatic staging. “We are approaching this science fiction classic as a B movie, so you can expect campy acting coupled with killer robots. What isn’t there to like?” he asks.
The costumes (Laura Heikkinen), scenic design and props (D.B. Schroeder) use Steampunk themes that support this campy Ed-Wood-meets-Ray-Bradberry approach to “R.U.R.” All action plays out to a music bed of retro-sounding chiptunes, which lends an electronic tempo that drives the meticulously plotted pacing of the show.
The story takes place on a remote island where a group of scientists and business managers have discovered the formula of “mad scientist” Dr. Rossum. Lacking the scruples that kept the old doctor from playing God, the new Rossum’s Universal Robots team has been mass-producing robots for a number of years. As the play opens, business is going full swing; the people running R.U.R. have perfected a system to manufacture humanoids that do the work of men at a fraction of the cost. In fact, only a handful of people work at the vast island plant—most of the labor is done by the robots themselves. These humanoids are manufactured flesh-blood-and-bone robots that possess a strength and intelligence superior to mortals but, alas, no souls. (The word “robot” actually appeared for the first time in this play.) Robots are pumped out of the factory by the thousands, as businesses seek cheap labor and governments stockpile expendable soldiers. The R.U.R. investors grow wealthier by the minute.
Enter the lovely, naïve Helena, (Laura Heikkinen) daughter of the President, who visits the island with the secret intention of urging the robots to declare their rights as sentient beings. However, the robots themselves show total disinterest in her declaration of freedom; they recognize the value of work and productivity, but little else. In short order, Helena abandons her plans for revolution and even marries the R.U.R. head man, Domin (Casey S. Hibbert). The scientists and company officials are all devoted to Helena, but treat her like a child who must be protected from anything unpleasant. For her part, Helena is still convinced that the robots should be perfected and made more human-like; she believes if they were given souls, they could be happier and mesh better with their mortal masters.
All goes swimmingly for ten years, until some of the robots start to malfunction and show signs of resentment. We learn that Dr. Gall (Paige Vanzo) has experimented with a line of advanced robots, at Helena’s suggestion, and this well-intentioned influence brings fatal consequences. Humans have grown fat and lazy and turned over all the tools of creation and destruction to the robots. The end is as quick as it is inevitable.
What works so well with this production is that Schroeder’s cast embraces the true spirit of the melodrama – they are not mocking the characters they play or winking at the audience to make sure everybody’s in on the joke. Rather, they deliver the heartfelt speeches and self-important dialog with utmost sincerity… the way they would have in Capek’s day. That fact that this style is totally hilarious to the 21st Century audiences makes it an absolute delight–and we howl with each slammed fist, each wan hand-to-head gesture, and the general chewing of furniture that passes for elation, despair, fear, piety and courage.
And yet… while we may laugh at the heavy-handed way Capek tells his cautionary tale, the message still comes through. These evils will hasten our destruction: unchecked capitalist greed; blind adherence to science without admitting the leavening effects of art and faith; an eagerness to relegate honest toil to others; teaching robots to be professionals in the art of war. That last one is the big no-no.
Fortunately, just as with Pandora’s box, Capek leaves us a tiny beacon of hope in the play’s epilogue. Realizing that they lack the formula to reproduce themselves, the Robots calculate that they, too, will be extinct in 20 years. The only human left alive does not know the formula, and they urge him to experiment on the robots of his choice. It takes two evolved robots to show us the essential aspects of humanity worth preserving – the self-sacrificing nature of love, and an appreciation for beauty that defines any practical application. In the end, that is the only thing that lasts.
Early in the play, when Domin proposes to Helena, she rebuffs him by saying he must be crazy. He responds with, “People should be a little loony, Helena. That’s the best thing about them.” This Puzzle Piece production of “R.U.R.” celebrates the lunacy that, for better or worse, defines humanity.
D.B. Schroeder directs a 10-member cast of the area’s finest talent. While the “human” actors learned to study the melodramatic form, the “robots” immersed themselves in online robot videos to perfect their mechanized motions and the algorithmic trial-and-error approach to learning tasks. The combination is mesmerizing. This thoroughly remarkable cast features: Steven Davenport (Robot Marius), Laura Heikkinen (Helena/Robotess Helena), Casey Hibbert (Domin/Primus), Dan Johnson (Alquist), Mandy Logsdon (Nana), Anna Marck (Sulla), Sergio Mautone (Busman), Jeff Miller (Hallemeier), Joshua Daniel Palmer (Radius), and Paige Vanzo (Dr. Gall)..
Sadly, this sold-out show, which has been staged at Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s home at 460 Hilton in Ferndale, closes today. Check out the Puzzle Piece Theatre website and Facebook page to stay apprised of what’s coming next.