BWW Review: RUR Brings History's First Robots to Gamut
When Stephen Hawking suggested a few years ago that Artificial Intelligence eventually might kill off mankind, he wasn't the first author to go there. Even before we wondered if androids dreamt of electric sheep, Czech playwright Karel Capek, in 1921, was working out the same concept. RUR stands for "Rossum's Universal Robots" and gave us the word we now know and love for AI beings from Robby to Gort, and all points in between. Originally written in Czech, it was translated into multiple languages almost immediately, including into English by Paul Selver in time to rush it to Broadway in 1922. (Pure trivia: Spencer Tracy made his Broadway debut as a robot in the play.)
RUR is on stage right now at Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg, directed by Clark Nicholson. It's proof that some of our thorniest modern questions about technology have been around for a solid century or so, and that we still haven't answered them satisfactorily.
Capek's "robots" weren't so much humanoid machines as humanoids, created by the departed and unseen Rossum from synthesized matter that generated artificial humans. We learn this from Harry Domin, played to great effect by Tom Weaver, who is the general manager of the RUR company. While Rossum wanted to create life to disprove the existence of God, and his nephew took over only to make money, Harry believes in the Greek ideal that humans should live lives of leisure, rather than drudgery, and that robots will free man from degrading menial work to be free to think and to create.
It's an inspiring goal, but since robots are living beings of a sort, aren't they entitled to be treated well? That's what Helena, of the League of Humanity, believes, though she'd prefer that robots weren't made at all. Helena here is played by Michelle Kay Smith, with as much zeal as any reformer might have on a quest to insure, er, semi-human... rights. Her enthusiasm for her cause and her wit attract Harry and, for that matter, the entire human staff at RUR, and Harry marries her. She's not swept away by the philosophy of RUR's business, however, and secretly destroys the formula for making - perhaps "growing" might be a better term - robots.
Weaver's slightly absurdist comedy against Smith's dedicated straight-woman part makes for great chemistry, especially with the other cast members helping out. There's William Eissler as Dr. Gall, who does research and development and is persuaded by Helena to make robots more human; there's Dan Burke, a devastating Mr. Alquist, the head of engineering, who disagrees with Harry as he believes in the dignity of labor. As such, he's pitted against the thinkers of the staff - Harry, Dr. Gall, Mr. Fabry (Robert Campbell), Dr. Hallemeier (Michael Kacey) and Consul Busman (Jeff Wasileski, whose breakdown in Act III is really quite powerful).
Unfortunately, making their AI creatures a bit more human gives them aspiration; robots serving at RUR develop urges to control humans, and their ideas spread to other robots, including ones being used by various countries in their military so that humans won't be killed in the fighting. Thence the apocalypse, very much like the one predicted years later by Hawking... and the robots' discovery that they can't live forever, but that they also can't replicate themselves without human help. It's eventually up to Alquist to save the world, but, as he says, he's not a thinker. Burke carries the epilogue with this situation, and it's riveting stuff.
RUR is a show for science fiction lovers, obviously, but it's also one for more general popular culture buffs (Rossum and RUR references abound in pop culture, including in BATMAN and in FUTURAMA), for those who'd like to discuss just what makes human beings human, and for those interested in technology generally. It's also a delight, visually, in this production - written in the 1920s and set in the 1950s, it's a fine opportunity for a set designer to go retro. Scenic designer Andrew Nyberg has let loose with a set that manages to combine Art Deco with dieselpunk in the most beautiful way, with a delightful utilization of Gamut's two-level stage.
Capek's play, at least in Selver's translation, isn't perfect by any means. Nicholson's created a good bit of robotic stage business that certainly improves on many of the gaps in the plot, filling in the story with needed visuals. The visual impact of the set and the robot action worked in also helps a play that is essentially, as scripted, almost all talk and no movement among the main characters save for Weaver's cleverly gawky, marionette-like Harry. His movement is pure comedy bliss, while the others' motions are highly restrained, and it's great fun to watch Weaver's comic turns here.
RUR is a glimpse, certainly, into a past view of a then-distant and now bygone future, and one that clearly did not yet come to pass, but its themes are still heavily relevant, not the least of which is the problem of determining exactly what it means to be human. Where does the gulf between human and non-human intelligent being end, and how can we be sure? If we create an intelligence capable of making its own choices, what happens if its choices oppose ours, and how do we control it? Certainly some of this is still speculative, but it's the stuff of scientific ethics debates that rage constantly - because while the problems presumably are still speculative, they're not unthinkable in the long term.
This is fantasy turned relevant over nearly a century of performance and production, and worth seeing just for that, as well as for the cast's performances and for an amazing set. At Gamut through February 26. Visit gamuttheatre.org for tickets and information.