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Mean machines 

Workers’ rights message in Rossum’s Universal Robots rings true to this day. Natalie Pendergast punches in.

DaPoPo Theatre Company’s first year would not be complete without a performance of pure science-fiction social commentary. Thursday marks the opening night of Rossum’s Universal Robots.

At first, the robots appear to bring an end to working-class blues. They can handle any chore, any task, no matter how toilsome. Programmed solely to work, no one could have predicted they would develop a free will and, eventually, rebel against their lack of rights—proving that all work and no play leads to “defiance, rage and revolt!”

DaPoPo’s co-artistic director Garry Williams calls Karel Capek’s play prophetic. “At the time,” he says, “it responded to the growing number of workers in revolt. Although it was written in 1920, the quality of writing remains strangely up to date.”

Having performed plays of sociopolitical nature in the past, the company has faced a new challenge with Capek’s play. Williams’ and co-artistic director Howard Beye’s creative juices started flowing at the idea of doing science fiction theatre. In order to project the fantasy in a believable way, they incorporated Russian theatre master Vsevolod Meyerhold’s acting method, the Biomechanics Technique.

“It builds on a grotesque exaggeration of gesture and fluidity of time,” says Williams. “The effect is an explosion of activity and one expressive gesture, like a murder taking place in slow motion.”

Capek’s subliminal message is that if any authority figure—either domestic or stately—demands blind patronage from its underlings, it should expect insubordination. Even robots understand reciprocity and will remain loyal only if they have a reason to. To add another dimension to the theatrical depiction of the characters, DaPoPo has fused the stage with elements of film noir. The play’s emotional climaxes manifest themselves through the lightening and darkening of the stage at precise moments in dialogue.

“There are shadows on stage because there are shady characters,” says Williams. “Another film noir theme is the characters’ betrayal.”

The play discusses issues still at the forefront of today’s social landscape, says Williams.

“In Paris, thousands of workers are revolting and it reflects the mentality of disenfranchised youth,” he says. “In Rossum’s Universal Robots, the individual characters pursue their own dream, but without working together. Today we have the same problem—when everyone works to their own means instead of working together, the end result is destructive.”

Capek was considered a brave playwright in 1921 when the provocative subject matter of his play was acted for the first time, but Williams admires him for being revolutionary as a linguist as well as a cultural critic.

Rossum’s Universal Robots was the first piece of writing to ever introduce the word robot to the English language,” he says. The Czech author, however, did not randomly create the word. In his native tongue, “robota” means “work.” And thanks to the impact Capek’s play has had on literature, the word is now commonly used to mean “monotonous, involuntary work.”

Ironically, the cast—Kristi Anderson, Eric Benson, Mike Chandler, Terry Driselle, Elizabeth McCarthy, Kim Parkhill, Nathan Pilon, Alicia Polosky, and Alicia Potter—is not getting paid.

“It is really remarkable,” says Williams. “These people have taken time off work to rehearse and it’s sometimes tough to make rent. Their commitment is definitely worthy of mention.”

Rossum’s Universal Robots, November 17 - 26 at The Bus Stop, 2203 Gottingen, 8pm, $5.

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