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Sci Fi Meets Historical Fiction in 'Universal Robots'

Mac Rogers’ reinterpretation of ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ returns to the NYC stage.

Photo by Deborah Alexander

If you consider yourself a science fiction fan, you've likely heard of Rossum's Universal Robots by Karel Čapek—the 1920 Czech play happens to be where we get the word "robot" from. Far fewer, however, are familiar with the playwright himself or his place in the founding of a Czechoslovak national identity in the shadow of newly Communist Russia and developing Nazi Germany. But that's all about to change in this imaginative play by Mac Rogers and Gideon Productions that explores what would happen if the events of R. U. R. occurred in Čapek's own life instead.

Directed by Jordana Williams, Universal Robots is the story of famous playwright Karel, his writing partner and sister Josephine and their circle of Czech intellectuals as their world is completely upended by the arrival of an eager young woman and her unbelievable human-like automaton. Using their influence with President Masaryk, the Čapeks secure funding for Helena and her inventor mother, Rossum, in exchange for government oversight over their innovations. But as the "robots," as Jo calls them, grow ever more humanoid and become vital to running the country, they revolutionize Czechoslovakia, and finally the inevitable request is made: create war robots to defeat Nazi Germany before Hitler's planned genocide can begin. What's more dangerous, an army of Nazis or an army of robots?

While it gets off to a slow start, opening with an extended intellectual debate about communism amongst characters who will later fade out of the narrative, Universal Robots does a great job establishing the precise political moment of 1920s Czechoslovakia. That new nation's sense of insecurity is crucial to understanding why the Czechs in the play are so eager to elevate their people by freeing them from common labor, to stay on the cutting edge of robot technology even as wealthier nations seek to copy Rossum's formula and ultimately, to save the world before what is happening to the German Jews happens to them too. Still, the play strengthens considerably in the second act as it focuses in on a heartbroken Jo and her moral unease with the new direction the robot project has taken.

Particularly exciting in this version of the Čapek story is that women start the robot revolution and women end it. The pair of scientists who build the first robots, Rossum and her daughter Helena, are matched by writer/sculptor Jo Čapek and, later, robot general Sulla. While it is unclear why the president of Czechoslovakia, meant to be a man, is portrayed by a woman (Sara Thigpen), such a diverse cast in terms of both gender and race is to be applauded. Women are the heart of Universal Robots; while Jo's faltering relationship with her brother Karel drives the first act, her relationship with Radius—the increasingly human-like robot who bears the face of her dead love Radosh—defines the second.

Universal Robots is an ensemble piece, in which a cast of ten plays a large collection of intellectuals, robots and everyday Czech people adjusting to the new nonhuman presence in their lives. While this constant switching of roles without substantial costume changes (coupled with a lack of clear scene transitions) sometimes proves confusing, the brief interludes in which customers read letters to the Čapeks regarding their robots are hilarious, providing glimpses of the world outside Rossum's lab while honing in on the central questions of the narrative. The woman who cannot understand why her husband is not working more on the novel he always talked about writing now that he has a robot to do his job gets perhaps the biggest laugh of the night.

Such an intricate story, of course, needs a solid cast of actors to do it justice. Hanna Cheek's Jo is as deeply sympathetic as her brother Karel (Jorge Cordova) is charming, while Tandy Cronyn delights audiences as the infernally stubborn Rossum. Extraordinary physical artist Jason Howard, while somewhat awkward in his portrayal of cafe waiter Radosh, absolutely shines in his nuanced embodiment of robot Radius; the other performers playing robots pale in comparison. And while Nikki Andrews-Ojo's interjections as the play's narrator, interspersed with her scenes as general Sulla, are a little distracting at first, they prove vital to the play by the end.

For audience members paying attention, the plot of Rogers' play will feel familiar—R. U. R. is a foundational work of science fiction that has inspired many writers before him—but that doesn't mean it can't surprise you. The inevitable question of whether to equip the robots for war remains interesting by giving the characters the opportunity to prevent the Holocaust, so that everyone knows exactly what is at stake if they say no. And despite the catastrophes that ultimately occur, and the number of places the story could stop, the fact that we keep going to witness a somewhat happy ending allows us to see everyone, human and robot alike, in a more positive light.

In any case, sci fi theater is always a challenge, and Mac Rogers succeeds again in creating an innovative, engaging play that will leave you wanting more. Universal Robots is a fun night out and a philosophical quandary all in one, and I for one can't wait to see what the Gideon Productions team comes up with next.

Universal Robots plays at the Sheen Center through June 26.

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