Context is everything, right?
Gideon Productions’ crisply constructed new staging of Mac Rogers’ play Universal Robots lands squarely in the midst of an embarrassingly crude election cycle, more than a decade of American military conflict and, just a few days ago, the largest mass shooting in US history.
So yeah, humankind is not at the top of my list these days.
This is precisely why it was such a welcome respite to see this new production of Universal Robots, which positively teems with the best the human mind and spirit have to offer. Maybe that sounds weird, given the subject matter of the play. Universal Robots is not by any means a happy show or even a show free of the kind of violence that is so scary in the real world – it’s not. Rogers’ Universal Robots is just so vividly conceived and executed that it is difficult to not get swept up in its narrative and its big ideas about how the things we create carry the memory of us. It certainly has much to say about the strong tides of revolution, whether political or technological, and the way those tides cut the path of history as they roll, eroding it down to a chillingly straight line. Hamlet called the ongoing rush of life a “sea of troubles” and taught us that our humanity is proven in how we navigate it. In Universal Robots, playwright Rogers prefers to call it “the mechanism of history,” and in this engaging production we see people, tenderly crafted by capable artists, trying to keep up with it or fight against it.
I covered some of the particulars recently in my Pre-Game, but for the record: Universal Robots takes inspiration from the 1920 play, R.U.R., by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek; a play mostly known for coining the term “robot.” Playwright Rogers has extemporized wildly and brilliantly from this source material, taking only the idea of robots and the life of activist playwright Čapek and rejiggering them for his own ends. Universal Robots essentially asks how the 20th Century would have unfolded if sentient robots had been invented by a scientist named Rossum in Czechoslovakia around the time the original play was written. Čapek, as a personal friend to newly elected Czech President Tomas Masaryk, along with his sister Jo and several of their artist and scientist friends end up as part of an ethical committee on the use of the robots. As the robots become more advanced and the looming threat of Hitler’s Nazi party becomes more real, President Masaryk and the ethical committee make the difficult decision to send a battalion of fighting robots into Germany. However, once the robot soldiers come home from the war, they realize that they now have the capacity to fully subdue their human creators and take the world for themselves.
I first saw Universal Robots back in 2009 and it’s always interesting how a different aspect can pop out at you when you revisit something. This time around, the leitmotif of President Masaryk’s Christianity and Čapek’s attempts to understand his own beliefs really just reached out and took hold of me. This surely had a lot to do with Jorge Cordova, who plays Čapek with a lively sense of intellectual exploration. Cordova truly shines in the earlier scenes, which mostly entail Čapek, Jo (played by the magnificent Hannah Cheek), and the rest of their crew jabbering on about art and politics in a coffee shop. Cordova is charming enough that we get wrapped up in Capek’s idealistic zeal in this front half of the play – something that is crucial to the emotional journey of the later parts of the story.
Most of the company plays double or even triple roles. Nikki Andrews-Ojo plays both the narrator and the eventual robot leader Sulla, and often in the same breath; her ability to toggle between the even keel of the narrator and the militaristic snap of the dictator is quite impressive. Greg Oliver Bodine is hilarious in his early role of Salda the playwright, and later is deeply affecting as Baruch, a Jewish American advisor to FDR, who makes the case for stopping Hitler’s march on Europe. Neimah Dourabchi, Tarantino Smith and Brittany N. Williams also turn in nuanced performances in a number of roles.
The inventor Rossum, played here by Tandy Cronyn, seems to have been adjusted a little from the previous version of the play. Here the character’s absorption of her scientist husband’s identity and persona is a little less overt, which allows for Ms. Cronyn’s version of the character to be a little less irascible.
In this new cast, Jason Howard and Mr. Smith remain from the 2009 production. In the roles of the barkeep Radosh and the first robot Radius, Mr. Howard again shows an immense and subtle range. For instance, the robot Radius’ speech patterns evolve slowly from an electronic bark to a fuller vocabulary; Howard handles that gradual transition beautifully. The bizarre love story between Radius and Hannah Cheek’s Jo is still among the more compelling parts of the play, bolstered by Ms. Cheek’s vigilant and splendidly textured performance.
The efforts of Gideon’s in-house director, Jordana Willams, and its in-house scenic artist, Sandy Yaklin, are evident in this production’s rich theatricality. The production makes nice use of the vertical space in the Black Box at the Sheen Center, not just in Ms. Yaklin’s towering (and modular) rolling backdrops, but also by utilizing the elevated catwalks and staircases that are part of the theater’s permanent setup. Jennifer Linn Wilcox’s lighting design compliments the industrial vibe, especially the intricate gobo patterns that undulate so hauntingly on the back scrim throughout the performance. All these elements, paired with Jeanne E. Travis’ sound design, lend credence to the idea that this is in fact a company of acting robots retelling this story.
Yet it is Masaryk, played in a welcome bit of casting by Sara Thigpen, who forms the spiritual center of the play. He is a man deeply invested in the future but also conscious of the metaphysical implications of his every action. Something that keeps coming up in plays by artists who I admire – as I do Rogers and the Gideon group – is the idea that art is itself a kind of secular religion, and the Masaryk/Čapek story bears that out. Here, when the artist Čapek attempts to show the Christian Masaryk his closest approximation of a prayer, it is a piece of art – a short story. When Radosh, a humble barkeep played by Jason Howard dies, he lives on in the sculpted cast the sculptor Jo made of his face for the robot, Radius. When Jo, also a playwright and the last human left alive, teaches the robots to honor the memory human culture, she does so by having them stage a play. Artwork, the play posits, outlives the artist and anchors itself in a realm more ethereal than aesthetic. Our creative energy is transmuted into the things we create.
Context is everything, right? Well, once we are gone, our art and ideas live on without context. They simply become the things they become and there is a beauty to that.
Universal Robots will play at The Sheen Center through June 26. For tickets and information, please visit SheenCenter.org/