Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: Siri Army

By Michael Block

Imagining a world overrun by robots seems passé. It's a popular trope in the science fiction world. Gideon Productions resurrects the story in a revival of Mac Rogers' Universal Robots. Playing the black box theater at the Sheen Center, Universal Robots finds inspiration from dramatist Karel Capek to create an allegory play framed within science fiction.
photo by Deborah Alexander
Produced by one of the leading science fiction theater lovers in New York, Gideon Productions, Universal Robots by Mac Rogers receives a new imagining that feels flimsy and tired. Freely inspired by the life and works of Karel Capek, Universal Robots tells the story of artists and scientists who develop a new innovation that will allow them to be free to create and invent while these mechanical beings serve as workers. With a backdrop of Czechoslovakia between the two World Wars, the robots are programmed to battle on the front line to avoid Nazi occupation but when the war is over, the robots develop a mind of their own and take over the human race. Universal Robots is a commentary on politics, science, and humanity through the lens of theatrics. Whether it was that this production didn't quite find its footing or if the script could still use some tweaking, Universal Robots lacked the wonder that the most recent Rogers-Gideon Productions collaboration, The Honeycomb Trilogy, offered. Broken up into two acts, Universal Robots could easily lose and fine-tune some of the extremely long exposition beat at the top to reach the intrigue of the robots sooner. And let's be honest, the robots are likely why you're seeing the show. With the The Honeycomb Trilogy design team returning and helmed by Jordana Williams, this design collaboration didn't offer the same brilliance. Using a world that felt like a mix of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells, the aesthetic felt bland. What was ingenious was the promotional propaganda posters designed by Pete Boisvert and Rebecca Comtois were smartly continued into the production, highlighting the industrialized world. But Sandy Yaklin’s scaffolding scenic design caused some staging woes, primarily at the café. Due to the placement and angles of scenic elements, Jordana Williams created some unpleasant stage pictures with the abundance of actors present at times. And for scenic elements that provide natural levels, Williams seldom used them opting for the second level of the black box at the extremes of the theater. While a good idea, it did cause site-line issues. Having the scrim present, lighting designer Jennifer Linn Wilcox utilized it to add some pops of color. The costumes from Amanda J. Jenks kept period for the humans but she gave some sad excuse for robot costumes. Yes, the source material was the origin of the robot and contains a strong commentary on the parallels between robot and human, but you couldn’t help want something more than turtle necks. And some color pallets were reminiscent of the second and third parts of The Honeycomb Trilogy.
Universal Robots was part science fiction and part love story. It’s the mark of Rogers’ genius to marry the two styles. When it came to the love between Hanna Cheek’s Jo and Jason Howard’s Radosh and Radius, it wasn’t titillating enough to sell the story. From alien to robot, Howard is the go to for he nonhuman. Unfortunately he gave a one-dimensional performance. Siri had more personality than Radius. Cheek has a natural gruffness that boded well for Jo’s defensiveness but when it came to the romantic side, it was guarded. When it came to great performances, Sara Thigpen was head over heels. As the sole gender-bending role, Thigpen’s characterization was exceptional. She was reserved yet authoritative.
You hate to compare but you have to. After something so glorious, the next offering needs to be just as good, if not better. If you're coming into Universal Robots with fresh eyes, you'll likely have a different perspective. But if you saw The Honeycomb Trilogy, be prepared to be disappointed. Universal Robots was lacking that spark you’ve come to expect.