Imagine the world of Franz Kafka channeled through H.G. Wells with a little help from Laurel and Hardy, and you get an idea of the sensibility underlying Karel Capek's 1920 play "R.U.R."
This sci-fi parable in the guise of a farce was a Broadway hit that introduced the word "robot." Fraudulent Productions' version, which opened recently at the District of Columbia Arts Center, downplays what must have originally made the show a novelty in favor of its more enduring qualities.
Capek, a Czech, wrote in the smoldering aftermath of World War I, a conflict that had demonstrated rather convincingly that the Age of Technology would not necessarily be mankind's friend. Across the blood-soaked, shell-shocked continent, many Europeans came to believe that man's machinery might bring him closer to extinction. That feeling permeates "R.U.R.," though neither the script nor the production tries to force it on you.
Instead we're treated to a nutty story about Rossum's Universal Robots, a manufacturer of mechanical laborers that look just like real people. Helena Glory (Julie Ann Myers) pays a visit to plant manager Harry Domain (Scott Hicks) to learn all about these strange new creatures that seem to work endlessly, never complain and never speak in anything but a monotone.
She is appalled to learn that, despite their intense resemblance to humans, robots have no soul and no emotions. Enter Domain's colleagues, who explain to her that souls and emotions--and basic humanity, for that matter--are terribly inefficient. As one scientist notes, from the viewpoint of productivity, "the whole of childhood is sheer absurdity."
Eventually, thanks in part to Helena, the robots rise up against the humans and destroy all but one. Capek essentially crafted a fun-house mirror that, amid the laughs, would reflect an ugly truth: Even the most advanced technology is no better than the human nature it serves. That is hardly news today, but it was rather daring for its time, especially coming 25 years before physicists developed the nuclear technology that can destroy life on the planet.
Director John Spitzer, however, finds Capek's wry, comic heart. The production goes over the top and then pulls back in almost all the right places. When, for example, Domain explains to Helena the genesis of robots, the scene is played with an awareness that today's audiences don't really need this information: The emphasis is on the contrast between Domain's cool, instructional jargon and the rising emotional heat he's feeling for her. There's a quirky fluidity to every scene, and Spitzer elicits it in a way that builds momentum.
He stumbles once, though, and significantly: After the robots have taken control and the scene closes, the climactic staging makes you think the show's over. The actual final scene--which downshifts the tone and becomes oddly moving in its melodrama--feels tacked on, not at all like the conclusion of everything that's come before.
Expert comics are hard to come by, even for theaters that have big budgets (which FraudProd most definitely does not). But the cast works well enough. Hicks and Myers make for a nice, goofy couple. Domain's colleagues--played by Michael Miyazaki, Steve Wilhite and Michael Mack--are a smart mix of brains and naivete. As the various robots, Karen Mitchell, Kim Curtis, Ron Woods, Sara M. Truog and Joshua Barrett know the difference between monotone and deadpan.
Azura Hassan's costumes, particularly those for the robots, wittily suggest Flash Gordon by way of the New York City Ballet. Brian Johnson's sound--industrial white noise--has a certain lyricism. Veronica Szalus's set is simple but stylish, fitting well with both the text and the tight space. The cumulative effect is a soft-edged production--one that seems concerned not that technology might destroy humanity in the next century, but that it may just numb it.
R.U.R., by Karel Capek. Directed by John Spitzer. Lighting by Christopher Kehde. Through Oct. 9 at the D.C. Arts Center. Call 202-462-7833.
CAPTION: Kim Curtis and Sara M. Truog play two of capitalism's ideal soldiers in Fraudulent Productions' "R.U.R."