The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts April 20, 2007

Robots Invade Wilder Main

If you’re human, watch out. This weekend Wilder Main will be taken over by a production of Czech writer Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Famous for being the first literary work to popularize the term “robot,” R.U.R. premiered in 1921 as a groundbreaking piece of science fiction on many levels, including its television production in 1938. The play is both conceptually and technically ambitious, as it pulls no punches and requires the portrayal of several paradoxical situations. Not only does Capek describe the robots as indistinguishable from the humans (with which they are constantly contrasted), but actors are required to navigate the line between lightly sinister and darkly comical.

In College first-year director Max Rivlin-Nadler’s frenetic conception, the play is reminiscent of a hyperactive Busta Rhymes music video, replete with idiosyncratically strong voices, exaggerated gesticulations and a fluorescence that seems gawky at first but is eventually put into poignant effect.

The play is rather long, nearing two and a half hours and dragging through tenuous monologues. One wonders if some material should have been excised, especially as the pacing feels harried at moments. However, R.U.R. is not a play to snooze through, certainly not with Rivlin-Nadler at the helm and first-years Diego Cohen and Meade Bernard working TIMARA sound effects sporadically throughout the show. And how could one sleep with the world threatened by robotic control?

The cast also provides for an engaging experience. Headed by the dominating Domin (College junior Matt Castleman) and wide-eyed Helena Glory (College first-year Mary Page Terlizzi), the performance is book-ended by the mopey, tortured Alquist (College first-year Henry Whittaker). These three actors manage the roles quite well, dipping into tedium only as the play forces them through un-subtle waters. The Helena role proves especially difficult, as it requires both submissive and quietly central turns. Terlizzi pulls off the former impressively — it is quite believable that Domin’s lackeys are all in love with her — but vacillates too easily toward the wide-eyed tendencies to convince anyone she is ever truly in control of a scene.

The supporting cast provides the quirkiness that breathes fresh air into the script. Domin’s lackeys, the directors of the R.U.R. corporation, each prove to be strongly individualistic. This may take away from the potential for them to be compared with the stoic robots, but it does make for entertaining theater. The robots turn out to be less wooden than one would expect. But it’s hard to say whether or not this was Capek’s intention.

In the end, it’s no easy task to determine what Capek did intend. R.U.R. sets idealism against blue-collar values, juvenility against wizened and embittered age and love against (pro)creation. It may seem didactic at times, but its ambiguities keep the audience wondering. The vision expressed in Rivlin-Nadler’s production, though shaky and dark at times, flashes with a creativity and uniqueness that will keep it nicely unsettled in the mind for a long time afterwards.


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