Theatrical Allegory at Its Finest

Inspired by the public domain 1920 science fiction play R.U.R., Universal Robots is a bold achievement by Gideon Productions, giving audiences plenty of food for thought without skimping on the thrills one would expect from an alternate-history tale about a robot apocalypse.

Playwright Mac Rogers isn't formally adapting Karel Capek's classic (which added the word "robot" to the popular lexicon), but is rather using it as the foundation for his own speculative work, and the result is impressive. He sets his adventure in Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century and he keeps the names of some of the robots from the original, but his imagination catapults the narrative in new and exciting directions.

Photo by Deborah Alexander
As a period piece, the start of the play may not be as accessible for general audiences as his other recent scripts (the brilliant and ambitious Honeycomb Trilogy and the popular podcast The Message), but patience is quickly rewarded. The characters sit in an unnamed cafe debating art and politics. At times the early dialogue in that lengthy postmodern scene sounds a bit forced, but it sets the seeds for what is to follow -- idealistic dreams and bloody revolution. The actors (Jorge Cordova as Karel, Greg Oliver Bodine as Salda, and Tarantino Smith as Vaclavek) banter back and forth about realism versus fantasy in theater and the nature of man when it comes to creating a utopian society. Rogers skillfully foreshadows concepts of altruism and totalitarianism that will pay off later.

The story hits its stride with the introduction of the first automaton and it continues to gain momentum right through to the climax. The author's passion for the subject matter is evident, and his writing style kicks into high gear as we witness Helena (played nicely by Brittany N. Williams) introduce the robotic creations of her mother, Dr. Rossum (a lovely performance by Tandy Cronyn). Fans of the sci-fi genre are given plenty of fresh examinations of familiar themes explored by Isaac Asimov and others, while those who might shy away from the "fantastical" on stage can still find an allegorical smorgasbord about war, mortality, and creativity that seems just as relevant today as it does in the story's time period.

Photo by Deborah Alexander

The production takes place in the spectacular Sheen Center for Thought and Culture (18 Bleecker Street between Bowery and Lafayette in Manhattan). Director Jordana Williams has her cast make full use of the exquisite space, with intimate scenes in the staircase and catwalks on the sides.

Photo by Deborah Alexander

The actors who play the robots, especially Nikki Andrews-Ojo as Sulla, the leader of the robot army, convincingly depict the artificiality of the machines made in human form.  We see their evolution as their motions become more fluid, their voices become more expressive, and their facial expressions become more evocative. Jason Howard is phenomenal in his dual role as the human Radosh and the robot that shares his face Radius. His scenes with Hanna Cheek as Jo are especially moving.

Conversely, we also see the dark side of human nature. Greg Oliver Bodine also powerfully plays Baruch, an American who comes to convince President Masaryk (an outstanding performance by Sara Thigpen) to use the robots to combat the rising Nazi threat in Germany.

Of course it all mushrooms out of control. Neimah Djourabchi as Peroutka captures the look of stunned helplessness that everyone is feeling when the robot prodigies show their independence and rise up against their human masters.

Photo by Deborah Alexander
As in all great tales about artificial intelligence, Universal Robots asks the question, "What makes someone human?" Mac Rogers provides his own speculations, but allows the audience to draw its own conclusions in his epic examination of what it means to be alive.

Universal Robots plays at the Sheen Center through June 26.