Encore Michigan

R.U.R., a vintage play with great relevance today from Puzzle Piece: Show added Feb. 28

Review February 25, 2016 Martin F. Kohn

FERNDALE, Mich.–Robots are taking over the world. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been replaced by such a machine but in 1921, when Czech playwright Karel Capek’s R.U.R. was first produced (in Prague), the idea must have been downright terrifying. Since then the idea has shown up in so much science fiction on screen and on paper that it’s old hat and “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) has been relegated to the past.

Which may explain a couple of things about Puzzle Piece Theatre’s new production. For example, the old hats: a derby, a miniature top hat and, on the head of the female lead, an elaborate millinery confection. D. B. Schroeder’s staging has a steampunk look, thanks mainly to Laura Heikkenen’s costumes.

The play, all plot, devoid of subtlety and with little character development, hardly lends itself to contemporary trappings, so Schroeder has his actors perform as if they’re in an old movie—they speak loudly and face the audience almost all the time. Heikkenen, playing the main female character, talks like Betty Boop. One may quibble with the choice but Heikkenen’s vocal characterization never falters.

All this stylization may detract from the reality that, dramaturgy aside, R.U.R. has much to say to a contemporary audience, about how good intentions go awry–about the value of work, about responsibility for one’s actions, about profits vs. people; about human nature. R.U.R. may be a museum piece, but few literary works even attain that status.

The story, in brief: The late Rossums, uncle and nephew, discovered how to make machines that were like people and would do all the world’s scutwork (“robot’ comes from the Czech “robota” which means menial work) at practically no cost, save the initial investment. The play takes place on the island where the robot factory cranks them out and the money rolls in. Every once in a while a robot begins to act too human and causes trouble, at which point it’s sent off to be dismantled. There’s nothing to worry about here. Nothing at all.

Feel free to guess what’s going to happen.

Besides Helena, who arrives as a visitor and stays, the production’s human characters are the people in charge of the robot company, led by the general manager, Domin, played by Casey S. Hibbert, with a surfeit of cheery heartiness and an undercurrent of worry. His fellow executives are played very solidly by Dan Johnson, Sergio Mautone, Jeffrey Miller and Paige Vanzo. Johnson’s character is the sole manager who thinks there’s something seriously wrong with manufacturing humanoids, a sentiment seconded by Helena’s servant, Nana, (a very expressive Mandy Logsdon).

The robots are played with consistently choppy movements and what are instantly recognizable as robot voices by Stebert Davenport, Joshua Daniel Palmer and, most effectively, Anna Marck.

An underscore of carefully chosen electronica adds much to the proceedings and the selections are most courteously identified in the playbill.

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