Universal Robots, running now through June 26 at The Sheen Center, produced by Gideon Productions, and directed beautifully by Jordana Williams, has a lot to commend it. Inspired by Czech playwright, Karel Capek's R.U.R., and using bits of Capek's life within its structure, the play is a parable about humans trying to make automata, later called robots, that are almost human, but not quite, and the attendant issue of humans acting like monsters, thereby making the robots seem more human. A theme we have oddly enough become accustomed to since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Indeed, Rogers manages to create his own monster that appears to draw (aside from the major chord of R.U.R. and Russian Futurism) equally from Blade Runner, Frankenstein, and the gloriously cheesy television series V - creating a delightful mash-up up of high and low-brow references.
The actors all did a splendid job, keeping the presentational style alive without turning their roles into one note. The barkeep/robot (Radosh/Radius), Jason Howard, is the obvious standout, because he moves through so many phases of human-robot-human(ish), which he does with astonishing precision. Williams has staged the play with real dexterity. The only issue I had was not being able to hear lines when large scene changes were happening, but that can be fixed easily enough. What she and the designers have created on stage with a limited budget is all in all quite wonderful.
There are many ideas explored in the play, both directly political in the first part and implicitly political with the growth and evolution of the robots in the second, when they inevitably overtake their 'masters.' Putting this event in the context of political revolution (which is debated in the first part under the guise of Karel, the playwright, discussing his politics and art with his friends at a cafe, where they are served by a humble bar-keep, who turns out to be a pivotal robot prototype) is a canny context, even if I disagree with the implications of this context as the plot of the play unfolds.
Lovers of science fiction will be particularly happy seeing this play, because Rogers is very good at playing with this genre in an intelligent way. I was somewhat discomfited by the seemingly facile glazing over of genocide at the end, though I imagine that was intended to be ironic. The issue I have with the speculative genre - and this is admittedly a taste thing - is that - not dissimilarly to the robots - we are in a world that is created entirely by the author. Of course arguably that is true of all plays, but within science fiction the author creates all the rules by which his or her world runs. Therefore, if you begin to question those rules, you feel a bit silly because you have no 'real world' to which to point without seeming hopelessly humorless or dull-witted.
I think this issue became bigger for me because Rogers chose to contextualize this parable within a semi-biographical-historical context rather than a purely fantastical one. Therefore, I could not help but wonder what his fictional robots implied regarding real life political change and revolution. The implication seemed to be that any revolutionary ideas are suspect and lead to violence. That then is an argument implicitly for a kind of pleasant, humanistic status quo, which is embodied here by clever, good humored artists who are supported by inherited wealth sitting around talking served by a bar keep who is happy to say over and over again how much smarter they are than him and so refills their drinks all night long without complaint. Perhaps even more now in 2016 than when the show was first mounted in 2009, these questions are quite alive in the US with such a contentious election season, and it is hard not to see them in this context.
While the revolution being referred to is Czech after WWI in relation to the Bolshevik revolution and leading into WWII in relation to Hitler's fascism, the talk about who is allowed to make art, how people who labor and are not considered 'elite' should be treated, and the ways in which we dehumanize one another - embodied in this case in the first half by the treatment of and acquiescence to the role of second class citizen played by the bar-keep. The fact he becomes the prototype of the robots is doubly eerie because of this. The fact he is 'sacrificed' twice in the play - once as human and once as robot - I found somewhat discomfiting. I fear sometimes that these tropes become dehumanizing in and of themselves, because throughout this robot/drudge is considered less than human. Even if there is a nominal mourning of that fact, the reality of it is somehow not undermined.
There is also the meta-frame of the theater, aided by Capek, as playwright, being a a key player in this drama. The main idea proposed is that telling this story in a theater is somehow redemptive of even a mass genocide. The audience for the show the night I attended felt that way, that was clear. Many people gave the show a standing ovation and were clearly moved. I did not feel so moved, most likely because of the concerns raised earlier, but I am fairly certain I was an outlier on Friday night.
This also leads me back to my original concern with the science fiction genre, because as I write this reflection, I feel silly taking such a premise so seriously in the first place, but so be it. Rogers has the guts to ask very important questions - which is the most important thing a playwright can do - but I then do feel compelled to take those questions seriously enough to respond to at least some of his (implied) answers. I should perhaps also say that - as a matter of taste - I seek to swim in more vulnerable waters than this speculative form allows, but within this frame much has been accomplished. I am grateful to Rogers and the whole cast and crew for creating a piece of work that made me think so long and hard about it, in relation to current politics and the role of theater in general.