Robots have been around in theatre, films, and TV ever since the concept was given a name in the 1920s Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In Robots Vs Fake Robots, a play by David Largman Murray, now at the Powerhouse Theatre, the concept gets a new going-over.
By the year 6000, robots have almost, but not quite, replaced humans. Robots are young, sexy, and beautiful, and live in a subterranean world that looks and sounds like a disco. We meet robots called Shoe Horn, Cranberries CD, Neck Brace, and Morse Code. They spout lines like, “I look like John F. Kennedy – or Madonna – who was pretty and invented himself.” They are vain, shallow, jealous, suspicious, and above all, oblivious to human-style sensitivity. Sex (robot style) is frequent, but love does not exist.
Enter Joe (Steven Connell) and his girlfriend Sammie (Ida Darvish). They are among the last humans, living like war survivors on the earth’s surface, sharing their few provisions and their warm feelings for one another. But all it takes for Joe is a couple of chance encounters with sexy female robots who taunt him about his human smell – it seems that robots can smell “any way they want to” but humans smell bad – and Joe becomes determined to become a robot or at least a fake robot. Knee Pad (Greg Crooks), the dapper and cynical Robot leader, gives Joe his wish. He is deodorized and turned into “‘Advent Calendar” aka the “New Robot.”
But with his new status, Joe discovers that robot life requires a disconnect from his past, as well as from any feelings of compassion for either human or robot. Furthermore, Joe isn’t the only fake robot in the disco. Who else is faking it in order to belong? What happens to those who are found out?
Murray’s elongated one-act play hits what are by now predictable notes in regard to the issues. All science fiction tales of this type deal with the fight for survival of compassion. We can easily anticipate the bend that the play is going to take.
But the disco setting and youthful players give the play’s familiar message a topical punch. Murray, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara (he is now working on an MFA at the James Michener Center for Writers), says he was inspired to write Robots by the “party scene at UCSB,” and by ”the false image so many young people strive for, the one put forth by Hollywood and the media.” Joe allows himself to be seduced by the lure of the robots’ shiny, good-smelling images, and to hate all that is true about himself. How many audience members, watching this play, will wince with recognition, seeing their own self-doubt and low self-esteem, and seeing in the robots’ behavior, those “sosh” types who taunted us in high school?
For those who don’t want to see too deeply into the show, however, Robots Vs Fake Robots provides a lot of pop cultural fun. The opening night audience applauded at the end of every scene, as they would for a series of rock acts. Indeed, director Emily Weisberg moves the play along with a rock show briskness, complete with adroit choreography by Jennifer Li, great disco lighting effects by Jacob Mitchell, and pre-recorded music by a group called The Faint. The athletic (and admittedly attractive) robot cast members manage to avoid clinky stereotypes in their acting. Especially effective are the moving performances of Sarah Sido as a “robot whore” and Darvish as the rejected Sammie.
Have fun with Robots Vs Fake Robots – but be sure to wear some deodorant.