David V. Lu!!
Photo Credit: Dan Lazewatsky

Reviews: Heddatron

As mentioned previously, I recently took a whirlwind trip up I-55 to Chicago, where I had the fortune of seeing not one but two robot-based stage productions in two days.
Jane and Ibsen
The first was Heddatron, a loose retelling of Hedda Gabler by Elizabeth Meriwether. The idea at first seems like it was assembled by the manatees that are alleged to write for Family Guy. A Midwestern housewife is kidnapped by robots and forced to take part in a production of Hedda Gabler. Before seeing the show, I thought the parts might end up being interchangable. A Californian man is kidnapped by zombies and forced to take part in a pinball tournament. A British priest is kidnapped by werewolves and forced to take part in a fight to the death.

However, there are very motivated reasons for the plot to be set up as it is. The analogy between a Midwestern housewife (Jane), bored with her marriage, and Hedda Gabler is obvious enough. But why does a modern retelling of this story require robots? The answer to that is most clear in a speech given by “The Engineer” midway through the play:

But- think for a second? What is singularity? Just self-awareness. And that’s not fun!! Oh boy is that not fun! And it’s especially not going to be fun if you’re a toaster who suddenly wakes up and realizes you’ve been making toast for years! And for what! There’s a whole life out there! What would you do with your body if you knew it had been built just to be used by someone else? You got all this so-called self-awareness, but there’s nothing about you that’s really your own…

Women overcoming the gender barrier and, theoretically, robots achieving singularity, face an existential crisis…what do you do when you don’t have to do as you are told? Ibsen and Meriwether suggest that they will become bored and seek to take power over others. Thus is the motivation behind Jane’s actions throughout the play, Hedda’s reasoning behind her manipulations and the reason for the robots to kidnap Jane.

[There is one other clever reason connecting the robots to Hedda. In the original play, the man Hedda becomes involved with is in fact named Ejlert Løvborg, which is just about as appropriate of a name for a robot as I've ever heard, especially considering this came 30 years before Rossum's Universal Robots was written.]

The portrayal of the robots in this play is nothing particularly ground-breaking. The robots are depicted as autonomous agents, with enough intelligence to be able to understand (and kidnap) humans. However, they are severely limited in their capacities in traditional ways. All the robots are portrayed as having semi-stilted speech (except when reciting Ibsen) and do not understand some fundamental concepts about human behavior. Furthermore, the robots look like robots, in that they are generally boxy metal figures with very limited degrees of freedom, complete with arrays of blinking lights.

The script specifies that real robots be used in the production. In terms of “robot theatre”, the robots are included in the production largely for the novelty of having robots in the production (in conjunction with the thematic elements mentioned before), NOT for them to give any sort of nuanced performance. That’s not to say they were not deftly operated/programmed by those controlling them. In fact, throughout the production I was quite impressed that there was nary a technical glitch in the production, as far as my eyes could tell. The timing and interaction between the human actors and robots was all quite convincing. However, they were convincingly portraying robots, or more specifically, standard human preconceptions of intelligent robots. I’d like to see a production where the robot must give a nuanced performance as some sort of complex character, even if that character is still a robot; a bit more Wall-E than “ERROR THAT DOES NOT COMPUTE”.

Hedda and robots
That is not to say that I did not immensely enjoy this production. The clear parallels between the modern story and the portrayal of how Henrik Ibsen came up with Hedda Gabbler and the plot of Hedda Gabler itself were entralling. Much like [title of show], there’s something amusing about watching a show that documents how the show you’re watching was inspired. The audience is watching a show in which “inanimate” robots are used to help convey this story of rebellion, while within the production, the character of Henrik Ibsen formulates the story of Hedda Gabler while playing with little dolls. There are a few other loose elements to the story that I still haven’t quite grasped, with their reasons for being included still unclear.

While nowhere near the musicality of Death and the Powers, Heddatron does include a particularly unique musical interlude, with the robots, Jane and the whole cast eventually singing Total Eclipse of the Heart. I must admit I’m a sucker for robots singing 80s power ballads.

Overall, it was definitely an enjoyable night of theatre. The combination of robots on stage and a play discussing robots seems to be a winning combination. The robots were used very effectively in the production, and the presence of real robots forces audiences to confront their own opinions about technology in ways that actors in tinfoil suits never could. The real robots also add an other-worldliness to scenes, especially in the Robot-Forest, much in the same way that the robot faries in A Midsummer Nights Dream capture the the escapism of the forest in that play. Most enjoyable of all, after I left the theatre, I could not stop thinking about the play, and what it meant for robots and robot theatre.

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