The corporation isn’t so much in the business of robot-building as it is in “the manufacture of artificial people,” explains Harry (played by Mike Rudden), the manager of Rossum’s Universal Robots.
Oh, well, then. Can’t imagine this going downhill.
Actually, it turns out that artificial people are as prone to uprising and rebellion as robots, at least in the imaginings of Czech playwright Karel ?apek, who wrote this piece of analog sci-fi in 1920. ?apek’s legacy – many credit him with popularizing the English word “robot” in the first place – get a breath of new life in the Naked Theatre Company’s production of R.U.R. (staged, appropriately, in The Shop).
With eleven people on a small stage performing a three-act 90-minute play that chronicles an entire era from the single setting of an executive’s suite (which feels a bit like doing a play about the Civil War that never leaves the Oval Office), R.U.R. might have ended up feeling overcrowded and plodding.
But thanks to smart direction from co-directors Cory Cunningham and Rachael Murray and guns-blazing gusto from the talented cast, the show successfully achieves that pressure-cooker feeling of impending disaster. When the robot army finally surrounds Rossum’s headquarters, we feel trapped inside right alongside the remote island’s last human survivors.
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
by Karel Capek
at Fort Fringe – The Shop
607 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
Despite the fact that Harry is dressed like Mark Zuckerberg, the show taps a rhythm nicely reminiscent of early 20th-century stage productions, with the braintrust at the robot factory all moving with an officious demeanor and speaking in a nicely crisp cadence. Which is good, because the occasionally florid translation of ?apek’s 93-year-old script retains a whiff of melodrama that needs to be embraced rather than ignored.
Rudden, as Harry, makes good work of it, as does his wife and former robot-rights activist Helena (Shaina Higgins). Their inner circle of mad (but affable) scientists provides many opportunities to discuss the ethics and dangers of commodifying and selling robots, and all actors involved bring nice variety and specificity to their characters (Elliot Bales, playing the quietly intelligent mechanic Alquist, makes a particularly strong impression).
A few plot points feel rather hopelessly dated, in particular the subservient mindset of the few female characters (“I’m a stupid girl. Send me back on the next ship!”). And it wasn’t entirely clear to this reviewer why the two black actors in the ensemble end up playing the majority of the robots opposite an all-white set of protagonists.
But even in moments when some dust stills clings to the material, there’s a charmingly earnest tone running through this beta cautionary tale.
The details of how artificial people are built, in particular, are wondrous. These aren’t metal brutes – they’re biological creatures, but they are nevertheless assembled, which means that Rossum’s Universal Robots houses acres and acres of vats, conveyor belts, weaving machines, all carrying skin, brains, bones, nerves… it’s all delightfully imaginative.
So that when the robots begin to organize, it feels like the whole island of mutinous material is tearing itself free from its spindles and hooks.
Horrifying, yes, but damn good fun.