By Daniel Skora
“The Robots are coming! The Robots are coming!” Actually, the Robots are already here and you can see them at the Puzzle Piece Theatre in “R.U.R”, a play that’s not only highly entertaining, but one that has some historical significance as well. R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, a fictitious company that makes artificial biological organisms that look human (robots) out of protoplasmic-like chemicals. Because R.U.R.’s robots require neither food nor rest, they are the perfect machine for providing cheap labor to industrial companies around the world.
The play takes place in the future, but it’s not the future of present day 2016. It was written in 1920 by a Czech writer named Karel Capeck, which places “the future” of the play sometime in the 1950s. Capeck was, in addition to his many other literary endeavors, a writer of science fiction. Like the fictions of many science fiction writers, there were political and social purposes behind his writings. In Capeck’s case, those purposes included issues like the rise of modern technology and man’s inhumanity to man, issues that he addressed in R.U.R. He and his brother Josef, with whom he collaborated on many projects, are credited with being the first to use the word “robot”, which is still used today for any mechanical device that resembles a human being.
Capeck’s serious intentions for his fiction can still be found in Puzzle Piece’s production, but you’ll have a lot of fun looking for them in director D.B. Schroeder’s highly entertaining and extremely comical interpretation of this sci-fi classic. Even before you take your seat in Puzzle Piece’s intimate little theatre, you’re thrust into the world of R.U.R. You have to pass several robots who roam the staging area deeply immersed in their work. If robots ever reach the sophistication of true humanoids, you’d want them to look and move just like the ones in Puzzle Piece’s production. The robots, as created by Stebert Davenport (Marius), Anna Marck (Sulla), and Joshua Daniel Palmer (Radius), are an uncanny lot: weird, amazing, and more than a little bit alarming. Their slow, jerky movements are machinelike, and their makeup is an intriguing zipper-like style that makes them look they’ve been stitched together from various pieces.
The play’s storyline deals with Domin (Casey S. Hibbert), the general manager of R.U.R., a company that manufactures robots for worldwide distribution. Domin is also caretaker of the secret formula that tells how the chemical his uncle discovered can be turned into human-like tissue. He has several high-level employees assisting him. Hallemeier (Jeffrey Miller) is in charge of robot psychology and behavior; Busman (Sergio Mautone) is director of Commerce. Dr. Gall (Paige Vanzo) takes care of robot physiology, and Alquist (Dan Johnson) is the mechanical brains behind the operation.
One day, a woman from a human rights organization named Helena (Laura Heikkinen) comes calling on R.U.R. Helena is concerned about the welfare of the robots, wanting them to be compensated for their labor and given a soul so they can be more like humans. Domin couldn’t disagree with her more, but finding Helena attractive, he marries her anyway.
Years go by on the island where R.U.R. makes their robots. The robots are now everywhere in the world and seem to be the only ones doing any work. Helena has acquired a nanny, Nana (Mandy Logsdon), and talking with her one day, Helena learns that the birth rate of humans is declining rapidly. At the same time, it becomes known that Dr. Gall has been secretly working on an advanced robot that promises to be much more human-like than the current model. Will the robots be able to improve their lot with their new-found abilities or will mankind be able to rebound from their robot dependency? These are the questions that R.U.R. has a lot of fun addressing.
If the plotline sounds a little ridiculous and far-fetched, it is. Schroeder, however, has chosen not to play Capeck’s script as pure science fiction or as drama. Instead, he’s crafted the play as a tongue-in-cheek surrealistic comedy. He has done some sculpting to Capeck’s three act script, now in public domain, and condensed some of the characters. And with great results. The show is hilariously absurd, loud and boisterous.
The design for the show is steampunk, and though the gears and industrial trappings that are a steampunk staple are rather sparse as the set is concerned, the costumes (design by Laura Heikkinen) are terrific. Schroeder has cast exceptionally well, with more than a few actors in the cast having Shakespearean credentials. The soundtrack is hip and high energy, featuring music-to-watch-robots-by courtesy of online artists like 8 Bit Weapon, Starmelt, Kai Engel, and more than a dozen others.
R.U.R. is a show in a category all its own. Though it never takes itself seriously, it has more than its share of intelligent ideas. If you’re tired of realistic dramas, this is the play that will lighten and brighten your heart. It’s imaginative, well-crafted, and guaranteed to stay with you long after the show is over. See it before the robots take over.
Stage manager for “R.U.R.” is Joseph Sfair. The show runs through February 28th. Tickets are available online at www.puzzlestage.org, by phone at 313.258.3885, or emailing email@example.com with number of tickets and desired performance indicated. Puzzle Piece Theatre performances take place at the Slipstream Theatre located at 460 Hilton in Ferndale.