The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“I’m afraid that the following syllogism may be used by some in the future.
Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines do not think
Yours in distress, Alan”
– Alan Turing, Letter to Norman Routledge (1952)
It was about a year ago when I saw my first Quantum Dragon show, Alandra Hileman’s Spell Eternity (feel free to Search above for my review). I found it an imperfect show – the premise was intriguing and the performances were good, but the script was weighed down by dialogue that crossed the line from world-building to nigh-impenetrable.
One year later and I recently caught Hileman’s latest show, the supernaturally macabre rom-com Mercy Killing for Awesome Theatre. (I won’t review it because I know most everyone involved, but I did enjoy it.) It seems appropriate that I would see an Awesome Theatre show before this one, as it was the folks at Awesome Theatre who turned me onto Westworld, HBO’s big-budget serial reimagining of Michael Crichton’s other famous theme park-disaster story. The show isn’t perfect, but it follows in the grand tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and the works of Isaac Asimov in attempting to predict the terrifying repercussions of rapidly-advancing artificial intelligence.
Czech author Karel Čapek made similar predictions. His 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the word “robot” (“roboti”) into the popular consciousness. It told the story that now seems old hand in sci-fi: that of the artificial beings who are happy to serve humanity… until they aren’t. In 2011, playwright Mac Rogers took Čapek’s play and gave it the Charlie Kaufman treatment, blurring the lines between historical fact and creative fiction.
The result is a disturbing ponderance on ethics given a steampunk-inspired production by a geeky local theatre troupe. In other words, good times.
Czechoslovakia rose from the ashes of World War One. During post-war reconstruction, Karel Čapek rises to prominence as an author. He and his sister Josephine spend a great deal of their time arguing art and politics with friends at their favorite watering hole. From these spirited debates about the Proletariat – and at the request of President T.G. Masaryk – the Čapeks pen the play R.U.R., a play in which the central characters are man-made beings called “robots”. The play gains wide acclaim, but it’s the presence of one particular audience member that catches the attention of the authors.
A mysterious woman named Helena arrives, revealing to the Čapeks the process that would make real the very synthetic lifeforms they imagined. With the aid of generous funding by President Masaryk, the first generation of Czech robots are brought online. Their mechanics are rudimentary and their vocal responses monotonous, but their effectiveness is indisputable.
But the problem with progress is that it can’t be stopped. As these artists, scientists, and politicians try to close the Pandora’s Box they’ve opened, they may find themselves on the wrong side of the extinction equation.
If there’s one way to win me over it’s showing how artists are truly vital to a functioning society. Art is often seen as a waste of overhead and artists as pretentious blowhards with no practical necessity to the world at large. Rogers sees artists as absolutely vital to the processes of innovation and societal growth. In this world, it’s artists who imagine technological wonders; it’s artists who ponder the implications of implementing untested methods; and it’s artists who put human faces to otherwise impersonal devices.
What’s more, Rogers’ play understands that art and technology are inextricably linked, with the advancement of the latter allowing for greater freedom of the former. James Cameron once said that technology, in and of itself, is amoral – that the tool is only subject to its use. Art, by contrast, can be immoral, innocuous, or overtly political – sometimes all at once. So how, then, is one obliged to treat a machine with an uncanny human form? Is the machine afforded a level of human empathy or should it be regarded as merely a complex tool? What happens when the tool goes from being a luxury to a full-blown necessity? When, if ever, should you stop upgrading?
It seems as if humanity has been asking itself these questions since we first learned to carve tools, yet we’re no closer to any definitive answer. It doesn’t take long for the robots to advance – nay, evolve – beyond our characters’ predictions, but they have no idea how to stop something that takes on a life of its own. As the 1940s draw nearer, it isn’t long before the President’s cabinet are approached by an American. A Jewish-American. His people are being slaughtered by a power-mad Austrian, but the US government refuses to get involved. They do the numbers: with the aid of the robots, the casualties of the Axis would be astronomical. So, which is the more worthy sacrifice: the millions of Germans who would die at the hands of the robots or the thousands of Jews who will be wiped out without assistance?
The best sci-fi is the kind that realizes there are no easy answers, just the ones that make it easier to sleep at night.
Still, the show isn’t perfect. The first quarter of Rogers’ script reminded me of Spell Eternity, in that its dense world-building often made the plot impenetrable. It gets better once the Čapeks put on R.U.R, but the scenes before that are a blur of Eastern European names and mentions of Communism spit out expeditiously. Similarly, director Sam Tillis makes a few head-scratching choices for blocking. The Phoenix Theatre – where I’ve both watched and performed in a great many shows – is something of a hybrid stage: part round, part thrust. As such, one has to carefully place their actors and set pieces, lest someone get “lost”. There are a great many times where actors were in full view to me, but showing only their backs to the rest of the audience, and vice versa. The final scenes in particular had moment when my complete view was obstructed by an actor standing right in front of me.
Thankfully, those moments weren’t perpetual, and there was enough in the production to hold one’s attention. For the most part, Tillis’ staging makes great use of his talented cast. As with Spell Eternity, Marisa Darabi once again takes the lead as the semi-fictional Josephine Čapek (in reality, Karel Čapek had a brother named Josef and a sister named Helena). “Jo”, as she’s called, is the more empathetic of the Čapek siblings, choosing to see the bigger picture rather exercising the outward aggression of brother Karel (Ava Maag). The two do well in presenting characters who are essentially two sides of the same coin. Paul Loper is serviceable as the President, but there are times when he came off as a bit villainous. Michaela Greeley, by contrast, is able to add a great deal of sympathy to Prof. Rossum – creator of the process that brings the robots to life – without letting her become completely villainous. I can’t recall having seen Ellie MacBride before, but she does well as political extremist Vaclavek. Also good is Louel Señores as bar manager Radosh, and Radius, the robot built in Radosh’s likeness. In fact, all the characters double as robots at one time or another. And I’d be remiss not to compliment Cindy Head as “One”, the omnipresent narrator. (I only hesitate in mentioning Kitty Torres and Matt Gunnison because I’ve worked with them both so many times. Nevertheless, I did enjoy their work here.)
One tells her story from atop a Tom O’Brien-designed set piece clearly meant to invoke Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. So, too, do Kathleen Qiu and Yunqi Xie’s costumes suggests a steampunk setting for the story. In fact, I couldn’t help but notice that several costume pieces – mainly the ties and brooches – were 3D-printed. I don’t know if they were purchased or made specifically for this production, but it’s done to just enough of a degree to be a stylistic choice instead of an anachronism. Sara Saavedra’s lights and Sara Witsch sounds further compliment the atmosphere of the this alternate history timeline.
With every bold new scientific innovation – from blockchain to Disney stunt robots – it’s easier to imagine a world where we humans are no longer part of the equation. Even the late Stephen Hawking feared what-he-saw-as-the-inevitable “AI uprising”. Yet, every time someone takes to the streets bellowing that the end is nigh, I never find myself all that worried. Sure, a great many things seem dire now, but one could argue that humanity should have wiped itself out (even if by accident) several times over by now. And yet, here we are.
The joy of “alternate past” stories like Universal Robots is that they give us the opportunity to make better choices about our future. With the gift of speculative fiction, we can see ourselves at our absolute worst, thereby striving to be our absolute best. Though Rogers and Quantum Dragon’s production of the show isn’t perfect, it wisely remembers to inspire its audience to act with the best of intentions.
Then again, there’s a certain road that was paved with the best of intentions…
Universal Robots is scheduled to run until the 14th of July at The Phoenix Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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