Review: Humans vs. Robots

UCSC grad student revives science fiction theater classic ‘R.U.R.’

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UC Santa Cruz graduate student Abel Cornejo brought one of the first ever sci-fi plays back to life this past weekend, with a modernized questioning of life itself with artificial intelligence.

Known for welcoming “robot” into the English language and sparking science fiction on the stage, Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s “R.U.R.” was resurrected by director Abel Cornejo for his senior thesis, which showed at the Theater Arts Complex B100. Packed with action, the single-act show, newly titled “R.U.R. Humans vs. Robots,” entertained and excavated questions about the future of humanity, technology and labor.   

Originally written in 1920 and premiered in 1921, Čapek took a stab at predicting human relationships in an industrially revolutionized era conditioned by capitalism.

“People in sci-fi know it as this monumental work that really introduced this world of sci-fi robots,” Cornejo said about Čapek’s original playwright. “To me I look at it as humans, workers and business owners, that conflict too.”

The play begins with Helena, an investigator from Earth, who arrived at Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.), a factory that artificially produces robots made of organic tissue. Though she is first disgusted by the factory’s operation, Helena falls into its rhythm.

Helena wants the robots to claim ownership over their bodies, believing they have souls and complex feelings, which are currently monitored by the factory’s management. Frustrated with this power dominance, robots begin to exterminate humans and attempt to take control of the world.

First-year Willow Miller-Cornu brought Helena to life in her zeal to emancipate the robots before her instinct to surrender to a system larger than herself won over. Her performance was consistent in its emphasis and sensitivity.

“Helena is all over the place sometimes,” Miller-Cornu said. “She’s got a lot of power and pride and she’s really trying to get what she wants but she feels like she’s not going to get anywhere, so she feels kind of hopeless.”

Condensing Cornejo’s rendition of the playwright into one act added to a breathless urgency in the story progression and the character development. The shortening changed the play’s tone from suspense to humor. Gore is tinged with more comedic exaggeration than horror. Character development was trackable, but lacked emotional resonance. The changes in social dynamics made the feeling of alienation less threatening in traveling to another realm.

Despite its rushed tone, director Abel Cornejo’s stage design brought the futurist setting to a contemporary audience. Three rectangular panels with the outer two angled toward the center panel caught a variety of projections to convey travel and time. Inside of the modest venue, recordings of eerie celestial twinkling shifted into galloping pulses to portray various sensations within the extraterrestrial setting.

Because the original play worked in the context of post-World War I Czechoslovakia, some of the humor and gender dynamics needed updating as well.

“Originally, when [Helena] first steps into the room, it’s five guys and they’re like ‘Wow, girl in town!’” Cornejo said. “That wasn’t going to work today. It’s misogynistic, and not contemporary enough, so we changed the characters to multi-gender to make it more relevant.”

Beyond changing characters to be both male and female, Cornejo added a variety of accents to the R.U.R. overseers to individuate each character, which helped draw out a slight variety and silliness to their managerial intensity. The factory originally takes place on a removed island, but in Cornejo’s, it takes place on another planet altogether, increasing the sense of a dangerous removal from Earth.

The play navigates existential questions like whether or not there is a point to having children if humans come into being artificially. Helena cannot have children, something she is ashamed of. But beyond Helena’s immediate experience of not being able to have children, there is a larger decline in human births due to the augmenting robot production, which puts her situation into a larger context of a shrinking humankind.    

Second-year attendee Alex Seifret found the play’s questioning of human autonomy the most provocative, particularly through the power dynamic between the robots and their overseers.“I did appreciate what this play had to say about the preciousness of humanity and whether we are man or robot, whether we are subject to choose our own path or whether we’re just machines,” Seifret said. “Do we have free will in modern day society?”

Whether 1921 or 2018, the play’s dark concern of a future with artificial intelligence made for a timely discussion on how power relationships in the workforce affect the way we live on and exploit the Earth through modernization.

“This peak is a sneak peak into our future,” Willow Miller-Cornu said. “It has a lot of communist undertones so it takes history, but then also looking to the future and saying, ‘What will happen when there [is] artificial life and what could happen as a result of that?’”