Review: RUR in classical theater
To say that the classical theater presents Karel Čapek’s 1921 science fiction play, RUR, a work that first introduced the word “robot” into the English language, is factual but not entirely informative. To really capture the essence of this production, it’s much more holistic to say that Jon Harvey is directing a production of Karel Čapek’s sci-fi play for classical theater, and oh boy, did he make some decisions of staging.
Čapek’s work here is the genesis of what has become the worn trope of robot revolt. Man creates artificial people with high intelligence but no souls to use as slaves. Turning humans into world aristocrats served by machines.
But you can’t keep an intelligent, soulless robot indefinitely. Especially not when man started using robots to wage wars, teaching them how to kill and be killed. Soon they want more than the nothing-burger man has allocated. It’s not equality they want, it’s dominance. And this mastery, of course, comes at the expense of man.
Lessons are meant to be learned in all of this. The dangers of playing God. Greed leads to no good. The pride of outwitting nature with innovation. The pitfalls not only of the past, but glaring of the present.
It’s not exactly a lighthearted story…unless you’re director Harvey, who helms the play’s three acts as a wacky comedy with physical gags, a man in a robe, and assorted awkwardness all around.
We see most of the play through the eyes of Helena (the confident Elissa Cuellar) the daughter of the president of an industrial powerhouse. She visits RUR, the robot factory (a decor in beautiful shades of gray inspired by deco-futurism by Afsaneh Aayani) under the pretext of wanting to buy the robots.
In truth, she wishes to free them or at least demand that they be treated more humanely. Harry (a nimble Calvin Hudson), the factory manager, proudly shows her around and introduces her to the other human managers (Dillon Dewitt, Lindsay Ehrhardt, Rhett Martinez, Briana Resa, and Gabriel Regojo).
That they all immediately fall in love with Helena is on Čapek. Henry even convinces her to get married within minutes. However, the almost burlesque performance of the managers rests on the shoulders of Harvey.
They overkill. They walk in packs. They giggle, criss-cross and declare emphatically until their last moments.
It’s a bold move by Harvey, even with the outcome uncertain. On the one hand, it’s wildly jarring to watch a story about human greed and the resulting destruction with half the cast playing it for obvious yucks.
And if they played frankly? Well, there would be problems with that too.
Čapek’s piece is full of monologue-like declarative dialogue that feels dated in its construction. The characters don’t talk to each other so much as they put forward philosophical ideas for or against robot-making. We get some good chewy fat for sure, but after 2.5 hours of sluggishness, that fat, with no lightness to help break it down, turns into a fast split.
There may not be a satisfying way to stage this play in 2021 despite the series’ incisive observations of human behavior and the systems under which we operate. Maybe that’s the gift Čapek gave us, not his piece itself, but the ideas it contains.
Not to say that this production is not without its own unique gifts. Two in particular. Interestingly, neither with a whiff of comedy about it, but both enjoying the director’s touch.
For a play about robots, we spend curiously very little time with them on stage. But when we do, especially when it’s Blake Weir playing a trio of machines, the show sparkles.
It must be strange for an actor to deliver lines without any emotion. Do the opposite of what they are trained to do. Along with Weir’s emotionlessness, however, comes a haunting emptiness that spills over into a fascinating kind of weirdness.
However, it’s his machine moves that seal the deal. Luckily no disco robot dance moves here, just a subtle movement that causes Weir to turn his head in the direction he’s moving before the rest of his body or a fist that slowly clenches and unclenches as he begins. to rebel. It’s a smart performance that makes him the whole robot ladies and gents.
Shifting into high gear, Regojo as Alquist, the assembler of robots (and the only manager who isn’t part of the clown act) tears up the stage with a full circle of emotions in the final act. . A difficult thing to achieve because it is here that Čapek’s dialogue is the longest and most repetitive. This after a second act that drags on. All the more impressive as we cling to every word Regojo says, feeling what he feels. End the show on a high.
This is what Čapek ultimately wants. Maybe not a happy ending, but a hopeful ending. Man, he tells us, is doomed if we give in to our worst nature. A temptation often stronger than our common sense. But man is also redeemed by the one thing that we cannot make, buy or sell.
Love, not technology, that’s all we need. Let’s just hope we don’t need a robotic revolution to remember that.
RUR continues until January 30 at the Deluxe Theatre, 3303 Lyon. For more information, visit classicaltheatre.org. $10 to $25.