R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots at Strangeloop Theatre: Theater review
A revival of Karel Čapek's 1921 tale of A.I. uprising feels like it's on automatic pilot.
Man is indistinguishable from machine in Czech playwright Karel Čapek's 1921 dystopian drama, which is mostly credited for coining the term robot and influencing generations of cautionary sci-fi narratives. For the waves of android rebellion stories that proceed from R.U.R., that tends to mean robots-who-act-like-humans and not the other way around, but the main cast in Brad Gunter's production for Strangeloop Theatre universally and inexplicably opt for automaton whether they be mechanical or not.
The plot, by modern standards, is pure camp: President of the Humanity League Helena Glory (Holly Robison, who somehow comes across as much in need of charging as any of the electronic characters at hand) arrives at a bustling robot factory capable of churning out thousands of units to be shipped around the world for manual labor and military use. Harry Domin (James Sparling), an enterprising production mogul tasked with seeing inventor Rossum’s vision through, attempts to pacify Miss Glory’s worries: Robots are built with no need for love, lack souls, and are satisfied only by the work they’re assigned. Sure, they sometimes drop all duties without warning, gnash their teeth, foam at the mouth and turn hostile toward their owners, but that’s not an indication of anything larger to come and things will probably turn out fine.
Granted, after a century of HALs and Roy Battys, today’s audiences have the benefit of hindsight to see how this set-up plays out, but Gunter elects to stage it all without self-awareness or irony, resulting in an awkwardly paced, anemic, joyless slog. More so, it’s a missed shot at some sharp reinvention—Čapek’s thematically straightforward script, in the right hands, could supply ample opportunity for genre commentary, nods to Czech or early 20th-century theater conventions, or technical showcasing. The few effects to be had in Strangeloop’s staging, though, are tedious (we wait an awfully long time in the dark for a digital shadow effect with no actual payoff) or unintentionally humorous. The production's bid for R.U.R.'s continued relevance would be more convincing if every production element weren't so rusty.