Heddatron | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn



This theater review was originally published online at Science Fiction Weekly, February 13, 2006.

The time is the near future. Robots have achieved self-awareness. Humans live in a state of quiet anxiety, fearing what the rebellious machines might do next--and with good reason. One suburban housewife has already vanished, victim of a mysterious robotic abduction. In a world teeming with unknowable, newly liberated intelligences, anything seems possible.

Very little seems possible to Rick (Gibson Frazier), husband to the kidnapped Jane. An ineffectual man, he is consumed with worry for his wife, who is both pregnant and suicidal. His other big concern is helping his tween-aged daughter Nugget (Spenser Leigh) cope with the abduction. Rick is alternately aided and frustrated in his efforts by his brother Cubby (Sam Forman), a shady arms dealer whose idea of an appropriate response to the tragedy is to peddle documentary footage of the bereaved family to the major television networks.

Nugget, meanwhile—by far the strongest member of the family—is writing an essay for school on the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Scenes from Ibsen’s life unfold in flashback. It is 1890, and Ibsen (Daniel Larlham) is wrestling with the composition of one of his greatest plays, Hedda Gabler. Constant belittling by his wife Suzannah (Nina Hellman) doesn’t help—she finds it pathetic that Ibsen acts out his scenes with dolls—nor do the difficult-to-resist advances of his kitchen maid Else (Julie Lake). To make matters worse, Ibsen’s archrival August Strindberg (Ryan Karels), the Swedish novelist and playwright, is carrying on a loud affair with Suzannah and thwarting Ibsen’s efforts to make Else more than just a “kitchen slut.” How can anyone possibly construct a well-made play under circumstances like these?

Back in the present, the sentient robots have spirited the pregnant Jane (Carolyn Baeumler) off to their rainforest hideaway in Ecuador, and are relentless in their lovelorn attempts to make her take notice and engage with them. But Jane can only wallow in a fog of suicidal self-absorption—that is, until the robots force her into the lead role in their production of Hedda Gabler. But Rick and Cubby are speeding to the rescue in their helicopter gunship. Will they make there it before the curtain falls on the heroine’s tragic end?

The role of a new machine

Even if Heddatron amounts to less than the sum of its parts, it’s still filled with flashy eyeball kicks—and, more importantly, it sparked plenty of intense and rewarding post-theater conversation.

The marriage between robots and the theater has a long, illustrious history, stretching back at least to 1921, when Czech writer Karel ńĆapek introduced the word in his celebrated play R.U.R. Les Freres Corbusier’s production of Heddatron aims for the history books in a new way—by being among the first plays to feature real robots on stage, playing characters alongside the human actors.

It’s unfortunate then that the robots are such a disappointment. As designed by the Botmatrix art collective, Heddatron’s robots are little more than crude sheet-metal mannequins perched on radio-controlled rollers. They don’t move autonomously; in fact, besides their wheels, they have no moving parts at all. The robots have garnered plenty of attention in the press, but watching them in action it’s hard to understand the hype. They do deliver their lines via text-to-speech software, and they evince a certain retro charm with their blinking lights and stop-and-start movements, but to call them live robots is overstating the case.

This would be beside the point if the play itself were more cohesive. The audience is treated to many entertaining scenes—Ryan Karels as Strindberg chews the scenery with relish, while Spenser Leigh as Nugget projects wounded innocence well—while televisions and live video cameras are used to strong multimedia effect. But the world of the play comes across as underdeveloped, and the ideas murky.

In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen attacked the lethally constrictive roles his society imposed on the individual. One might guess that Heddatron playwright Meriwether, by using Ibsen as a touchstone, has a similar point to make about today’s society—perhaps that we’ve been deadened into roboticism by our world, or that we trade a certain measure of innocence and security when we assert our autonomy. Or perhaps, by invoking Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, she means to suggest that we humans are as much the products of our programming as any robot.

It’s hard to know for sure, though, because we learn so little about the play’s modern-day human characters. Why are they so unhappy? What has brought them to this point in their lives? And where did all these robots come from anyway?

With Hedda Gabler Ibsen may have subverted the notion of the well-made play, but, in theater as well as robotics, that doesn’t mean that a thing should not be made well.  

By Elizabeth Meriwether
Directed by Alex Timbers
Produced by Aaron Lemon-Strauss
Robot design by Meredith Finkelstein and Cindy Jeffers
HERE Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
February 8th - February 25th
Tickets: $15.00
(212) 868-4444

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