How do you promote art, theater, music, and poetry in a deteriorating, postwar society? How do the dreamers of a nation remain true to their ideals and still connect to the civilians they hope to inspire? Mac Rogers succeeds in answering such questions through a fresh voice of reason and astuteness with his ambitious new play, Universal Robots.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The year is 1921 and the place is Czechoslovakia. Karel Capek (David Ian Lee) is a playwright with his head in the clouds, privileged enough that he needs not worry about having to earn wages to supplement his art. So instead he and his older sister Josephine (Jennifer Gordon Thomas) spend their time indulging in drink and conversation. One Friday night at a nameless bar, egged on by their pal Vaclavek (Tarantino Smith), these impassioned, bright-eyed Bohemians get heated and personal as they try to resolve being romantics in a bleak, hardworking community. Simultaneously, however, someone has gone beyond simply talking about this social dispute; a local scientist has already begun working on an alternate form of labor to help achieve the human race’s strive for leisure and pursuit of personal dreams. These new creatures, no, not creatures, because they are not living, these automata, sexless and unfeeling, propose endless possibilities for labor production. Their future utilization, however, creates just as much a saving grace for society as it does a threat to its existing human population.
Bringing the witty, wonderful script to life is a true ensemble, one filled with doublecasting. Standout performances include Nancy Siriani as the misanthropic and arguably senile Rossum and Jason Howard in his second role of the evening as Rossum’s robotic prototype Radius. He combines halted, monotone pronunciation with powerful, sentimental expression towards the humans around him. This winningly bridges the gap between his basic functions as a mechanical robot and his constant evolution into something more, providing the audience tender attachment to something not real. The brother and sister duo Karel and Josephine Capek, played by David Ian Lee and Jennifer Gordon Thomas, make a convincing creative team of young idealists who know not the consequences of their aspirations. This is matched pound for pound by their smoldering sibling rivalry, the sort that draws a brooding silence from Josephine when Karel begins a love affair with Rossum’s daughter Helena (Esther Barlow), or that causes Karel’s aggressive aversion to Josephine’s emotional protests when he reprograms the robots for war.
Costume designer Nicky J. Smith took full advantage of the period setting, mixing vintage fabrics such as flannels, tweeds, and corduroy, often in sepia-inspired shades of browns. Mr. Smith also emphasizes the masculine undertones of the play (patriarchy, war, procreation) by outfitting his female characters in skinny ties, wide belts, and shallow, squat hats. Raul Abrego’s minimal set adds a stoicism and sterility to the space that matches the more somber notes of the script; the one piece left onstage is repeatedly reinvented as a president’s desk, laboratory slab, and bar table. This less-is-more stage philosophy synchs well with director Rosemary Andress’ use of doublecasting, providing an added layer of minimalism that works especially well since most of the second roles the actors take on are as robots. The growing desensitivity throughout the play, therefore, surfaces both visually and thematically. Also, the square stage and raised seating creates three intimate fourth walls and one narrow, makeshift offstage area visible through a thin black curtain, limiting mobility and making the actors look and move like robots at times —that is, when they are not actually playing robots. With no intentional upstage, downstage, stage left or stage right, this directorial approach is just another subtle creative choice that adds to the overall effect of the play.
An intelligent play that leaves no room for error, Rogers has created a contemporary gem that urges its audience to ponder whether the need for human contact and interaction can be discarded while still maintaining a collective sense of initiative, justice, and achievement. His alternate telling of the past ninety-plus years illustrates a world where toil and suffering can be handed off to an indifferent, unfeeling working class with astounding ramifications. In fact, this scientific upshot rewrites the entire history of the second half of the Twentieth Century. No, not history — in an age of asexual technology, it’s more like a rewrite of “itstory,” a rewrite with a staggering, gripping conclusion.------------------------------------------------------------
Universal Robots (2 hrs. 45 mins; one intermission)
Manhattan Theater Source (177 MacDougal Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18
Performances (through 3/7): Wed.-Sat. 7:30pm