Birds & Stone Theatre
June 17 -25, 2011
Stories about robots that can interact with humans are certainly nothing new. Whether you favoured HAL, Rosie, KITT, C-3PO or the Fembots, robot stories in all their various genres and mediums have become fairly commonplace. Except in the theatre. Think about it…..when’s the last time you saw a robot story that didn’t involve the tricked-out special effects that can only come with a big blockbuster movie? Or at the very least, the visual magic that TV can provide? Robot stories in the theatre can’t rely on technical wizardry to tell their stores. And therefore, for a lo-fi robot story to work, it must have a compelling plot, actors able to behave inhumanly, and just enough “cool” stuff to give the performance that science fiction feel.
i-ROBOT delivers quite well on all three counts.
The play starts in the home of Jonathan. A man living alone, yet surrounded by intuitive talking robots that take care of his every need. His bed adjusts its firmness depending on how restless he is. An alarm desperately tries to wake him every morning. His lamp dims or brightens as Jonathan needs to see. A humidifier works tirelessly to make sure he is moist enough. His TV finds the channel Jonathan needs according to his viewing preference and a toaster lives just to make him the perfect breakfast. But Queen among robots is Jonathan’s wife, a perfect human replica he made himself as a proto-type for a robot project he is working on at his job.
We learn that Jonathan will be presenting these prototypes to important investors in the hope that his next generation robots will mean big money for the company. But the investors, while impressed with how human the robots appear and act, are put off by the fact that they are too human and turn down the investment. Jonathan’s boss demands he stop wasting company money and shut off the prototypes, including his own wife. While Jonathan is crushed at the career defeat and even more despondent at having to lose a wife he has come to love, he is not so far gone into techno-creepy land that he cannot disengage from the project. Arriving home, Jonathan explains to his robot wife what has happened at work and that he will have to shut her down. She protests, declaring her love for him – love she says is beyond simply her programming and refuses to comply. Things turn ugly from there. Without giving away the whole plot, we are treated to robot rebellion, robot self-actualization, robot self-doubt, robot death and robot afterlife.
It’s a complex plot at times with many ideas, philosophies and imaginative themes taking place. Not to mention a poetic narrative running through the performance. Frankly it’s a play that a lot can be said about. But, in the spirit of the robot, I will be succinct and precise. Here’s the good and not so good:
1. The opening scene where Jonathan’s appliances talk to him and then talk behind his back when he leaves is a brilliantly written and produced piece of theatre. In fact, all the scenes involving his appliances are well worth the price of admission
2. Jeffrey Olynek who plays Jonathan gives a wonderful subtle performance that allows his character to be somewhat nerdy without falling into tiresome cliché.
3. The three prototype factory robots, Mikaela Cochrane, Elaine Weryshko and Scott Morris steal the show with their combination robot/human delivery and intense characterization. Bravo to all three actors equally.
4. A scene in the second act that depicts a computer ossuary is spectacularly creepy and beautiful. This scene perfectly shows that you don’t need special effects to create impact when you have good writing and good acting.
Not so good
1. I wish I could say that all the cast was a strong as those I mentioned above. This was not the case. I was especially disappointed with the wife robot, whose performance lacked the energy, intensity and believability I would have liked to see.
2. A pseudo dance scene in the second act was amateurish and went on far too long. I understand that it was to be a representative plot driver, but it was unnecessary and took away from the flow of the story.
3. The final scenes were a little thin. I like unresolved stories and plots that don’t spoon feed you all the answers, but the play’s ending felt more like a lackluster trickle-off than a satisfying halt.
For the guys – It may be lo-fi sci-fi, but it has all the elements that made you love robot stories in the first place – SEE IT
For the girls – It may be sci-fi, but this is not a testosterone-fuelled story. It’s funny and sad and you’ll wish your humidifier talked to you this way – SEE IT
For the occasional audience – While the robot story will be familiar to you, the performance may be too alternative and experimental for your liking – SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – If you are ready to forgive some performance and plot issues, it’s an incredibly well- conceived imaginative piece of theatre unlike anything you’ve seen before. SEE IT