Timely and Well-Acted, R.U.R. Struggles With Staging

By Matt Falduto
Photos By Len Struttmann

Holly Fields as Sulla

Cedar Rapids – Theatre Cedar Rapids should be commended for its Grandon series, theatrical programming that often takes risks and is a wonderful complement to its more popular big budget shows, such as the Wizard of Oz, which opens in a couple of weeks. The most recent offering is a play written in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. This play coined the term “robot”, and as director Jason Alberty notes in the program, is the grandfather of many of the science fiction storylines we take for granted today.

The robots are created to serve the world, but in what is hardly a surprise to audiences that grew up with Blade Runner, Star Trek, and A.I., the robots rebel against their masters. Have we seen this before? Sure. But cloning technology is a part of our present, and the ideas expressed here are very relevant. The most fascinating theme explored by this play is the question of what makes someone human. The robots’ awakening in this regard at the end of the play is riveting.

Many of the actors turn in great performances. All of the robots (Paul Freese, Holly Fields, Tristan Maynard, Sean Brown, Laura Schmidt, Madison Spencer) did an excellent job creating the traditional automatons we expected. Kudos to Autumn Arnold and Mindy Oberreuter for the excellent makeup and costumes which really cemented the look of the robots. And whichever of these two talented women created the wigs most of the robots wore did a fantastic job!

A few of the robots deserve special mention. Brian Smith’s Radius was simply terrifying as the robot who starts to resist his human masters. Tristan Benett and Nicolette Coiner- Winn (who also portrayed one of the human characters) did a wonderful job of creating the robots who discover their humanity and a capacity for love. Only Dylan Ganson’s Damon was a little off, as the voice he used seemed too unnatural when compared to the other robot voices. However, my companion suggested that perhaps this was intentional to demonstrate that he was becoming more human-like. Judge for yourself when you see the show.

The human characters were also portrayed well for the most part. Stand outs in that group were Rob Merritt as Henry Domin and Nicolette Coiner- Winn as Helena Glory. The first act contains a lot of exposition and in the hands of a less charismatic actor could have been difficult to sit through. But Merritt could probably make a lecture on nano-technology interesting and skillfully kept the audience engaged during this necessary action. Coiner-Winn showed real range in her two characters, the human and the robot. Both Merritt and Coiner-Winn are good scene partners, providing excellent reactions to each other and allowing scenes to build. Nana, portrayed by Mary Jane Myers, provided welcome comic relief to the play.

Not all of the actors were quite as effective, unfortunately. In the middle of the play, the human characters are trapped and expecting the robots to break down their defenses at any moment. In this scene, the playwright takes some time to allow the characters to reflect on a lot of the themes of the play as different characters express why they were part of the creation of the robots. Much of this dialogue was rushed and at times it seemed like the actors were more focused on remembering lines than expressing some of the insightful thoughts the playwright gave the characters. The scene also suffered from a lack of tension. Actors were sprawled on the furniture and while their dialogue indicated they were worried about the robots, their body language and the static staging of the scene robbed it of all urgency.

Rob Merritt as Henry Domin and Nicolette
Coiner-Winn as Helena Glory

The play is performed in the Grandon studio, TCR’s smaller space. Audience is situated on three sides – it’s a thrust stage. My companion and were seated on the audience left side. This was an extremely frustrating place from which to view this play. All of the action was staged for the benefit of the audience in the front section. This was clear early on when Domin shows Helena one of the robots. He makes references to her face and hair and eyes. Those of us sitting audience left could see none of that. At one point there’s a reference to an object a character finds in another character’s pocket. I couldn’t see what it was but knew I was completely in the dark about something important as the rest of the audience erupted. Fortunately, my companion caught a glimpse of it by craning his head to the far right and let me know what I was missing. This happened throughout the play and I feel as though I really only saw 1/3 of the show. I am fairly certain there are some actors whose faces I never saw once. The curtain call was simply ridiculous. The first group of actors entered the stage to applause. They bow and then walk to the audience left side of the space and stand directly in front of us, a foot away perhaps. The second group comes out, bows and then blocks the audience right side. Finally, the lead actors come out and bow and stand in front the main section. I couldn’t see either of the second two groups of actors and all it did was drive home the fact that I was sitting in the second class seats.

I understand that staging a show for an audience on three sides is more challenging that staging for a traditional proscenium, but if a theatre is going to commit to a certain type of theater, I would hope they’d provide some training to directors who are going to direct in that space. TCR has a wonderful education program. I strongly suggest a class on directing for a thrust stage be required for all Grandon Studio directors.

All that said, I encourage you to check out R.U.R. TCR has to be commended for finding this gem of a play that challenges our thinking and encourages us to ask questions. Just be sure to get a ticket in the main section and not on one of the two sides.

R.U.R. runs through May 4, Fridays, Saturdays, and Thursday April 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $17.50-20 ($15 for students). Available here.

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