Isaac Asimov himself panned Karel Capek’s 1921 play, R.U.R. - Rossum’s Universal Robots, as “a terribly bad one, but … immortal for that one word.” Maybe he just needed to wait a few decades to see Roy Thomas’s 21st-century adaptation, playing through July 10 at the Overtime Theater.
The original “machines rise to overthrow their masters” epic, R.U.R. is credited with introducing the term “robot” to the world’s lexicon and heralding a new era of science fiction. Fans of Metropolis, Blade Runner, and their dystopian ilk will find themselves right at home in Overtime’s tight yet cozy theater. In only an hour and 45 minutes, the viewer gets an engrossing and sometimes chilling escape into the retro-future, realized to satisfaction with props, décor, and lighting right out of an old Flash Gordon serial.
An eerie ambience develops with the assistance of basic yet convincing costumes, the Replicant-like robots’ cold, metallic makeup, and the constant humming and chirping of computers and electronics. A traditional score might have been more effective, but the newer techno vibes pumped through surround sound speakers didn’t detract from the story and still managed to echo the theme of science’s often misguided progress.
The production bounces back quickly from a slightly confusing opening scene involving a female-model robot translating for her boss, arrogant, cigar-chomping R.U.R. CEO Harry Domin, who’s played to smug perfection by Robert Jerdee. First-timer Seth Burns as Robot Radius ignites the stage with the urgency of the robot revolution, performing with a quiet fire that later explodes into an evil rivaling Alien’s synthetic life form Ash.
Representing the human soul is Carl Alquist, played here by veteran actor Chuck Wigginton, who is quick to captivate the audience with his fumbling sincerity and endearingly humble yet incisive perception of robots, humanity, progress, and even God. He easily steals the second act as he undergoes a sickening loss of sanity upon discovering the revolution’s rotten core.
Despite a few trips over dialogue and stunts, this small production captures the spirit of a mechanical apocalypse, and several gut-churning scenes of violence will catch the viewer off guard. Director David Stone-Robb’s build-up pays off, while leaving the final resolution to the viewers’ imagination, as good science-fiction should.
In reducing the contribution of Capek’s play to the notion of a self-aware construct, Asimov, the very master of the genre himself, underestimated its power. A tale conceived close to a century ago that still arouses fears and casts suspicion on our shortsighted progress demonstrates something much deeper. Could the unrestrained pursuit of profit and paradise really bring about the end of life as we know it? In a culture of nearly limitless excess and ease that nonetheless seems to teeter daily on the edge of constant disaster — technological, financial, and ecological — Capek’s dark forecast looks more prescient all the time. As the final act of R.U.R. reinforces, god or no god, life goes on, in whatever form evolution favors. •
R.U.R. - Rossum’s Universal Robots
Through Jul 10
The Overtime Theater