I, for One, Welcome Our New Mecha Overlords

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Phoenix New Times - Jackalope Ranch Culture Blog

There are more challenges to having five robots on stage in a production of Elizabeth Meriwether's Heddatron than you might initially think. For a lot of theater people, the most obvious and common issue is affording five robot actors and finding someone who will provide you with them. Then there's getting that kind of thing, which is not usually part of live theater, accomplished as part of a typical live theater timeline.

Then there's getting the robots to operate the way you want them to and the human actors to accommodate them. I'm sure there are several other issues, but I'll close with the one that hadn't crossed my mind until I took my seat to watch the play: If the bots are remote-controlled (which they are in Stray Cat Theatre's current production, and probably in many others), the set design and the placement of the operator(s) have to be precise -- the robots have their own space needs, and the radio waves have to be able to reach them. Holy complexity, Batman!

It's a tribute to Meriwether's script, Ron May's reliably sensitive and creative direction, and a fun, skilled cast that OMG robots!!1! isn't even the most interesting thing about the show. The company's completely unselfconscious presentation of a lightning-paced, multifaceted story that seems to be taking place in one of the weirdest worlds ever (despite its similarity to our own) makes everything that happens feel significant and inevitable.

Much of what happens is also very funny, sad, or both at once. This quality in Meriwether's writing (I fondly remember her Nicky Goes Goth at Stray Cat several years ago) kind of reminds me of Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe). It's the sort of dialogue that begs to be shared, so here's a little snippet from Henrik Ibsen's maid, Else:

I hope I'm free from the factory . . .
. . . I never want to go back there -- When the foreman was raping my mother, I stabbed him in the leg, and he stopped raping her, because his leg was bleeding. And then he beat me and then he fired us. But then my mother starved to death when we lost our jobs so maybe I should have just let him rape her, you know? Probably should have let him rape me too . . .

(Okay, so maybe it's the radiantly droll Emily Rubin as Else who makes it that funny.)

The Ibsen household, including the visiting August Strindberg (played by Ian Christiansen in a nearly unrecognizable fit of heedless id), appears in 1890, kind of summoned into appearing when Nugget Gordon, a Michigan sixth-grader from the present, presents a school report about Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler.

Nugget's report is prompted partly by the abduction of her mother, Jane, by self-aware robots, who take her to Ecuador to perform Hedda Gabler with them in the jungle. (Like you do.) One of the best moments of that part of the play, in-joke though it may be, is hearing May's voice representing a robot stage manager, I guess? insisting to Jane, "Say your line. Say your line."

Knowing all of this ahead of time won't affect your Heddatron-watching experience much one way or the other, which is why most of it's in the play's promotional materials. Those hooks do make it easier to discuss the show, though.

The play's supremely enjoyable, like a massive, well-executed brunch buffet, but I don't find it random or silly. To me, it's pretty obvious that Ibsen (an adorably miserable Sam Wilkes) used his female characters to illustrate humanity oppressed by itself (as well as to promote feminist thought, however obliquely at times), that women and people in general still get trapped in society, relationships, and individual dysfunction, and that the robots represent beings that escape their destiny and move from servitude to glorious, terrifying freedom.

It's so very cool that Meriwether and Stray Cat have been able to make that clear while providing us with an experience that's timely, hilarious, and utterly and breathtakingly theatrical.