And we’re back.
After a basically yearlong blackout, I am happy to return to STP with a quick Pre-Game for Gideon Theater’s restaging of Universal Robots at The Sheen Center, which I will be reviewing in the next few days.
Back in 2009, Gideon presented Universal Robots at Manhattan Theater Source and it was my first experience with this remarkable company. Its science fiction story, an alternate history of the 20th Century where Czechoslovakia becomes a major world super power in the 1940s after inventing sentient robots, had surprising scope that felt new and daring for Indie theater. Gideon produced a couple of shows in New York prior to that original staging of Universal Robots, like Fleet Week, Hail Satan! and one that producer Sean Williams told me about once that involved an air guitar competition. (For what it’s worth, I like to imagine that Air Guitar is the lost masterpiece of the Gideon portfolio.)
These shows unfortunately came and went before my time, so to me Universal Robots acts as kind of the ur-text for playwright Mac Rogers and Gideon, encapsulating (and perhaps originating?) many of the elements that make up their standard operating procedures. Tender human relationships in the face of a sweeping narrative? Check. Imaginative sci-fi evaluations on contemporary issues? Check. Interesting gender stuff? Check. Bracingly funny moments of levity? Check.
More interestingly, it takes a peculiar sort of inspiration from the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, in that it makes the playwright Čapek the main character of the story. This transposition is cunning in many respects from a narrative perspective, but by having three of the main characters be playwrights (and activist playwrights at that) it also allows Universal Robots to directly address the conventions and importance of theater in culture as part of its story. In fact, one of my favorite ways to read Universal Robots is as playwright Rogers and Gideon’s veiled mission statement for theater (and maybe even art) itself.
The definitive exchange about theater in Universal Robots comes in the very first scene, when the Czech President, Tomas Masaryk, has joined Čapek and his cohort of bohemians and artists at an unnamed café. They have been talking art and politics late into the night. Čapek’s friend Salda, another playwright, criticizes Čapek and his sister Jo for only writing fantasy or allegorical plays instead of plays about the struggles of real life.
SALDA: I don’t dispute that, Mr. President, what I’m saying is that the times we’re living in right now demand something more from our Czech writers than indulgent fantasias about talking insects and splitting atoms. You want to make theater that serves the people? Put people on the stage! Put onstage only that which is real, which can truly exist in real life.
JO: But where’s the fun in that?
SALDA: Who said it’s supposed to be fun?
KAREL: It’s theater! Of course it’s supposed to be fun! The theater cries out for the unreal! Why have rigging above the stage if you’re not going to dangle a god?
This tremendous little back and forth certainly speaks to Gideon’s predilection for fantastical subject matter and stagings. But the rest of the scene, and indeed the rest of the play, also makes the argument that “unreal” theatrical fantasy can sometimes better “serve the people” and address “that which is real.” In this case, the price of politics, the need for ethics in science and the horrors of war.
Something that put me off when I saw the 2009 production at Manhattan Theater Source — the idea that the play is being performed by a troupe of acting robots — has become one of my favorite parts of the play in the intervening years. They say that these productions are being performed across the world in “restored human theaters.” Translation: in places of worship. The true god being dangled from the rigging is the act of storytelling itself. Sensational artwork and theater, Rogers and Gideon seem to be saying, is a holy thing that can outlive horror and aggression. That’s a belief that I share and something that I’ve thought about a lot today.
This restaging of Universal Robots will be something of a first for me. I have never had the opportunity to review a show for a second time. I am excited to see how this production compares to the original.
If you would like to re-read any of my previous reflections on Gideon, you can find your way to all of them here.
Universal Robots will play at The Sheen Center through June 26. For tickets and information, please visit SheenCenter.org/