Saturday, February 21, 2009

On-Stage: Universal Robots

One might think of 1920’s Prague as Old Europe, but it produced some remarkably forward thinking science-fiction, which still influences how we think about the future—that brave new world to come. Specifically, the plays and novels of Karel Čapek, sometimes written in collaboration with his brother Josef, would posit the frightening possibility of a post-human future. It was their best-known play R.U.R. (Rossom’s Universal Robots) that first coined the term “robot” (for which brother Josef actually received the credit). Karel Čapek himself now comes face-to-face with Rossom’s Robots in Universal Robots, Mac Rogers re-imagining of R.U.R., now playing at Manhattan Theatre Source.

As Universal opens, we see the Čapeks in their element, holding court at their Friday salon for poets and artists. In this reality, Karel now has a sister Josephine, but he still claims the ear of Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. It is for this influence Helena Rossum seeks Čapek out. Her mad scientist mother (evidently convinced she is her late husband) has invented a series of human-like automatons. To perfect them, she needs the Masaryk government’s financial backing. Čapek and Peroutka, the sole scientific member of the Friday group, convince Masaryk they have seen the future and Czechoslovakia must be involved in shaping it. However, the devout Masaryk appoints the skeptical Jo Čapek to his ethical advisory board for robot development in hopes of counterbalancing their enthusiasm.

Following the general story arc of R.U.R., Universal also becomes a cautionary tale about ideology as well as science. Much of the first act is devoted to Stoppard-like ideological debates between the agnostic anti-Communist Čapek, the socialist ideologue Vaclavek, and the Christian Masaryk, culminating with an unspeakable act of ideologically motivated terrorism. In the second act, the specter of Hitler creates a moral dilemma of truly cosmic proportions. Yet the play is always faithful to spirit of Čapek’s work, particularly R.U.R. and The War with the Newts, where the anti-Communist liberal expressed his profound distrust of attempts to create a New Man. Despite the best of intentions, it always seems to lead to death for the Old Man.

Rogers’ play is a heady brew of ideas and ethical issues, but it also packs an emotional punch, thanks to a great cast. Particularly touching are the scenes between Jennifer Gordon Thomas as Jo Čapek and Jason Howard, first as Radosh, the barkeep she fancies, and then as Radius, his robot doppelganger. David Ian Lee and David Lamberton, as Čapek and Masaryk respectively, also effectively convey the deeper humanity of their famous characters. Their scenes discussing the Christian subtext Masaryk perceives in Čapek’s work are in fact, some of the highpoints of the play.

Though it addresses some pretty advanced concepts, director Rosemary Andress never lets the proceedings get bogged down in dry intellectualism. In fact, Universal seems much shorter than its actual running time. It is a richly satisfying play, highly recommended to those who enjoy the work of Stoppard and Michael Frayn’s recent plays. It runs at Manhattan Theater Source through March 7, with the February 25th performance designated Czech night.