By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Czech playwright Karel Capek was a household name in the ‘20s, a social satirist most remembered for reconstructing the Czech noun robit -- meaning drudgery or servitude -- into the household term “robot.” To his own dismay, his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) became his legacy. Capek felt that it was far from his best effort, and dramaturgically he‘s right. But who’s quibbling about craft when it‘s 1920, and you’ve just witnessed an exotic variation on Frankenstein, a hybrid of Strindberg‘s symbolism and Jules Verne’s whimsy -- a play about androids taking over the human race. And although R.U.R.‘s internal logic is often as ludicrous as its characters are wooden, it crackles with bolts of wit and prophecy (about the perils of corporate downsizing, for starters) that more than justify Jerome Guardino’s shaky revival for Lonny Chapman‘s Group Repertory Theater.
On an exotic island, Domin (Arlen Boggs) -- as in Dominus, as in God -- manages a robot factory with the idea of eliminating drudgery for humans, while simultaneously driving down the cost of labor, thus driving down prices, thus allowing for a leisure -- and, in this case, slave -- economy. The hard-working robots are devoid of emotion, but occasionally have fits of aggression, perhaps born of futility -- a kink in the works traceable to tinkering by one of the scientists, who threw a few too many human ingredients into the vats of synthetic intestines and brains.
The play begins as Domin and crew are visited by the company president’s daughter, Helena (Casey Ging), a guileless beauty who is repelled by the scientists‘ inhumane attitudes toward the inhumans, and seeks to stir a robots’ rebellion -- even though she‘s too artless to stir up a bowl of soup. This renders Helena’s attempts to organize the workers, at least in this production, something of a lampoon -- strange in the context of a play by a card-carrying socialist that ends with a cloyingly sentimental ode to the beauty of the world, and to humanity, as against the encroachment of the machine age, war and greed. (Perhaps the parody is more of Helena‘s naivete rather than it is of her fledgling Marxism, but here it’s awfully hard to distinguish between the two.)
The play finally settles on a point about the hazards of the military-industrial complex, with robots profitably marketed as soldiers. Needless to say, by Act 3 the robots have banded together abroad and returned home to wage a class war, fully armed and with chips on their plated shoulders -- not quite computer chips, but close enough for discomfort.
Capek once noted that his play was about humans, not robots -- a point that fails to come across here. The lead performers are, alas, too robotic to illustrate much distinction between them and their machine counterparts. (The problem may be compounded by eerie, entrancing portrayals by the actors playing the androids, particularly by John Crimarco as rebel leader Marius.) Bonnie Scott‘s set has a retro charm: pentagonal set pieces and a matching dual-color scheme that feels straight out of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland circa 1955 -- an effect that, like the production itself, blurs the line between the campy and the earnest.