Review: ‘R.U.R.’ and ‘The Insect Play’ at Once More Theatre

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It’s a theme which has appeared in countless books and movies: If we build robots to do all of our work, what would happen if those robots grew smarter and rose up against their masters? This concept was new when Czech writer Karl Capek wrote the science fiction play R.U.R. in 1920 and introduced the world to the word “robot.” A new word for a new world.

R.U.R. & The Insect Play

Artwork courtesy Once More Theatre.

Once More Theatre has brought this concept to the stage with their productions of two Capek plays, R.U.R. and The Insect Play. Adapted by Jimmy Guckin, a founding member and co-artistic director of Once More Theatre, the plays highlight the isolation, social weaknesses and fragility of humankind. In R.U.R. the characters (all employees of the company that builds the robots) are living on an isolated island, a metaphor for how disconnected they are to the possible consequences of their actions. In The Insect Play the lone human character (in a lurid dream state) experiences the harsh realities, short existences and complicated relationships of the insect world realizing that – although humans are far more advanced – we still face the same questions of existence but approach them with far less innocence.

R.U.R. features Helena (Gianna Lozzi), an elegantly dressed socialite, who begins to question if the robots have souls and should be set free. Helena’s husband, Harry Domin (Carlos Forbes), as well as the scientists, have kept her and her Nana (Guckin) in the dark about the increasingly frequent robot revolts on the mainland. While Helena seems content with Harry’s answers, Nana grows increasingly suspicious. Although informed of recent happenings, Harry’s knowledge is based on newspapers that are a few months old leading to suspense when new robots arrive on the island.

The simple set features three white frame windows, square and robotic themselves, created by Cris Welti and David Kuong, a type of gilded cage (called ‘the tower”) where Helena is blissfully unaware of the turmoil lurking outside. Only one scene takes place outside this remote tower. Michelle Mercier’s costumes showcase Helena in a sparkling gown, while the robots wear somber colors (uniforms, really), dark red sweaters and khakis.

Director Peggy Mecham brings the play’s conflict between the optimists and the pessimists to fruition as the scientists and Harry all grow more somber on the future on the human race, while Lozzi’s Helena is still wide-eyed and hopeful and draws closer to one of the robots, Radius (Welti).

In The Insect Play, a drunken traveler (Forbes) falls asleep, only to wake up in a mystical world inhabited by different bugs, all of whom act like humans. There is only one scene in this play, but one with many stories. We see butterflies (dressed in tuxedo vests of various colors) acting as promiscuous love-sick transients thinking about the mistakes of their past. We also see Mr. and Mrs. Dung Beetle (Nazeer L. Harper and Kassy Bradford) rolling around their precious… well, dung, showing us that each species hold things of value – even if humans may not understand it.

There are also harsher tones to this play, as a parasite explains why he ate a larvae (Tara Hernon) whom we had seen playing with her mother moments before (although the character is intentionally annoying). The parasite, whom we’d think will contribute nothing helpful to our sleeping human, explains to him the short but exciting life of a mayfly. The human asks, “What’s the point to a life like that?” The answer is given by the parasite – a life form whose own life we often question the point of.

It’s not the answer the human expected. But for the characters in The Insect Play, having a different perspective can change everything.

R.U.R. & The Insect Play

Artwork courtesy Once More Theatre.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

R.U.R and The Insect Play gave its final performance on February 26, 2017 at Once More Theatre, performing at Plays and Players Theatre – 1714 Delancey Place, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future Plays and Players shows, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

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