In his book The Blind Watchmaker, evolutionary biologist (and outspoken atheist) Richard Dawkins describes a theoretical process through which our “primeval soup” of proteins and DNA originally thrived by growing on a scaffolding of inorganic crystals. This notion that the first beginnings of organic life on Earth were nurtured into being by synthetic elements seems fitting when one thinks of how humans have reintegrated the synthetic into their lives – glass eyes, fake limbs, implanted boobs. Is this recent compulsion to make ourselves perfect through plastic really just nostalgia for those good ole’ developmental days? Regardless of motivations, the inevitable consequences of this shotgun marriage between biology and technology are at the heart of Universal Robots, Mac Rogers’ adventurous new take on Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R.. The original play’s title stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots and it is often footnoted in science fiction anthologies for introducing the concept of robots and, in fact, the word “robot” to the world. Rogers’ version is equal parts historical drama and parable, expertly presenting the moral and political gray areas a servant class of robots would necessitate.
Czech playwright Capek is actually the main character of Universal Robots and the narrative follows the activist author (rendered with adequate intensity by David Ian Lee) through the peaks and valleys of Rogers’ alternate 20th century. When a gender-confused scientist named Rossum (Nancy Sirianni) invents robots in the early twenties, President Masaryk (David Lamberton) appoints Capek, his sister Jo, and their circle of coffee shop bohemians as the Czech ethical committee on the treatment and usage of robots. At first these humanoid robots are given a strict set of parameters to differentiate themselves from humans, such as alienating speech patterns and a rule preventing use of the first person pronoun “I.” However, as technology improves and there are calls for weaponized robots to suppress Nazi Germany, Rossum’s Universal Robots find themselves on the brink of consciousness and revolution.
If Rogers’ script has any weakness, it is the conceit that the audience is watching a troupe of acting robots “tell the story” of how they came to rule the world. Occasionally the cast chants religiously or breaks character to offer a bit of commentary – sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The compelling narrative about Capek could easily stand on its own, but the frequent breaks and asides of this “storytelling” framework tend to subvert it.
Yet the story told deserves much praise. Rogers’ script could have been the clunky old “robots are people too” tirade seen so often in films like A. I. Artificial Intelligence or I, Robot, but instead it greets audiences with genuine characters like Capek’s sorrowful sister Jo (played faultlessly by Jennifer Gordan Thomas) and complex philosophical quandaries about whether pedophiles should be given child-shaped robots. Sure, one could parse out allusions to contemporary debates about war and genetics, but the true beauty here is the authenticity of Rogers’ re-imagined twentieth century – where robot-producing Czechoslovakia emerges as a world power. Supported by Rosemary Andress’ sharp, but restrained staging, Rogers’ robots believably progress from faceless mannequins to PTSD afflicted soldiers.
Universal Robots’ cast features many highly competent actors, but two performances stood out as truly outstanding. Ridley Parson infuses much humanity into his fearless portrayal of Baruch, a Jewish American advisor to FDR, who offers U.S. support for Czech President Masaryk to send combat-programmed robots into Nazi Germany. Baruch’s mission is a murky business and Parson doesn’t shy away from the moral implications. After soldiers, women and children in Germany have been efficiently “contained” by the robot army, it is clear that Baruch and Masaryk have exchanged one genocide for another.
Likewise, Jason Howard displays incredible nuance in robot Radius’ evolution from a crude automaton to a self-actualized, but deranged individual. In a tender scene when Jo asks Radius if he is able to embrace her, he affirms and Howard’s deadpan response is hilarious: “Do you wish to enact this scenario?” Through Howard’s performance, these charming encounters make the traumatized android’s eventual descent into madness all the more tragic. The robots’ affecting journey into sentience (and the parallel journey of those who manufactured them) is at once funny, stirring and horrifying.
While Rogers’s sci-fi fable concludes that Dawkins’ ever-evolving romance between the organic and the inorganic might end in heartbreak, he also suggests that inhuman robots could eventually learn to be humane. This leaves us with a final allegory, I suppose, about how all the things we make – like art, war, and love – have our best traits programmed into them.
Or how when you come right down to it… sigh… robots are people too.