Players presents little-produced play ‘R.U.R.’
By Charles Cassady
Published July 16, 2008
science-fiction landmark of the summer is coming to North Olmsted.
But it’s not the “X Files” sequel, or a TV-film “Terminator” continuation,
or another (yawn) comic book superhero cinematization. In truth,
it’s not even a movie.
It’s a rare revival by the Dover Players of a historic
stage play entitled “R.U.R.,” a “fantastic melodrama” by Czechoslovakian
author and playwright Karel Capek. If you haven’t heard of “R.U.R.”
on your basic-cable package Sci-Fi Channel show, that’s because
it goes back a bit. Even before classic “Star Trek.” Even before
TV in the first place.
First produced in Prague in 1921, then translated
into English in 1923, “R.U.R.” is the drama responsible for inventing
and popularizing the word ‘robot.’
The early 21st century was right for a revisit to
“R.U.R.,” said director Jim Volkert, a Brecksville native who now
performs, as both actor, puppeteer and director, in live shows throughout
“There are robots on Mars, doing the exploring for
us. There are robot vacuum cleaners, robot lawn mowers...That’s
why this is very timely,” said Volkert.
“R.U.R.” stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, in
the show a company that mass-manufactures artificial people who
do menial work in a future society. Nitpickers in the world of sci-fi
(such as those who insist that ‘SF’ is the proper term, and ‘sci-fi’
only means juvenilia) point out that the slave humanoids envisioned
by Capek are not mechanical in nature, like the Transformers or
Pixar’s WALL-E, but rather androids of organic material, grown in
vats. They are more like Frankenstein’s monster or the ‘replicants’
of “Blade Runner.”
Nonetheless, the playwright’s brother came up with
the name for the creatures, taken from a Czech-language word ‘robota,’
denoting a serf or lowly agricultural laborer. The word stuck. Everyone
knows what a robot is, even if only a fraction have heard of “R.U.R.”
And even fewer have seen “R.U.R.” performed. Some
decades ago the old Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival gave it a rendition
in Cleveland. “I’ve never seen it produced - anywhere,” said Vokert.
His is a slightly updated adaptation - replacing ancillary
details such as telegraph communications with e-mail, something
Capek never predicted. “I’ve reduced it a little. I’ve slimmed it
down and tightened it to a little like an hour and a half,” said
Volkert, who added that many theaters have to do the same to Shakespeare
for more manageable running time, and that (like Shakespeare) Capek
had a habit of repeating everything three times or so.
But the intent is nonetheless to do justice to the
playwright’s themes. “That men, like God, are going to create things
in their own image. That’s one of the messages.”
One idea Volkert found especially compelling is an
explanation of why Rossum’s Universal Robots come in both male and
female models - because society would be more comfortable with them
that way instead of as one “gender neutral” version. “They’re supposed
to be like people.”
Robots in concept were not unknown before “R.U.R.”
Humanlike automatons of metal and gears appeared in literature even
as far back as 1816 in E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Sandman” (the
basis for the ballet “Coppelia”), and android beings were even more
prevalent in fiction, the stage and early film. Not long after “R.U.R.”
appeared, the German silent-film epic “Metropolis” depicted an electromechanical
robot in memorable fashion; in fact, that robot’s appearance was
copied somewhat for C-3PO in the “Star Wars” movies.
Not long ago a British stage-musical remake of “Metropolis”
was a costly failure. Don’t expect “R.U.R.” in North Olmsted to
dazzle you with LucasFilm-sized production values. “There’s a really
nice story here. It doesn’t need all that special-effects stuff...I
am not going for spectacle here,” said Volkert.
His robots will be actors in uniform-like costumes
and basic makeup, with only slightly non-human mannerisms to set
them apart. “We’re not trying to make them like HAL in ‘2001’ with
affected voices. They’re not doing the moonwalk or the robot walk.”
Moreover, the Dover Players will enact “R.U.R.” in
the round, at Old Town Hall (5186 Dover Center Road, North Olmsted).
“There are no bad seats,” said Volkert.
Admission is free to the public, though a $5 donation
is requested, especially for those who make reservations to guarantee
their seats at this most unusual specimen of community theater.
“R.U.R.” performances begin Friday at 8 p.m. and continue
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with a closing 3 p.m. matinee on
July 27. For reservations and more information, call Todd Evangelista
at (440) 779-1284.