by Byron Woods
Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek’s influential 1920 drama, R.U.R., wrestled with some of the principal dilemmas confronting the 20th and 21st centuries. The play that famously gave the word “robot” to the world brooded on the ability of technology to alter the meaning and value, not only of labor, but life itself. It presciently anticipated a future in which technological innovations could rapidly—and disastrously—change a culture’s economics, politics and military might; a world whose ethics are regularly challenged, if not outstripped, by the speed of such developments.
For all that, Capek’s futuristic work is rarely produced on the modern stage—and with reason. R.U.R. was popular in Europe and a Broadway success in the early ‘20s, during a period when melodrama was at the height of its popularity. The decline of that form means that the original text hasn’t aged very well; to contemporary eyes, it now seems stilted, stiff. Though he venerated R.U.R. for its contribution to our language, Isaac Asimov, no small authority himself on the history of robots, had concluded that Capek’s version was “a very bad [play]” by 1979.
But when playwright Mac Rogers began revisiting a childhood interest in genre forms after moving to New York, he took on R.U.R. to fill a two-week slot at Manhattan Theatre Source in 2007. He enriched the work by merging biographical details from Capek’s life into the body of a play that already had autobiographical elements. The result was UNIVERSAL ROBOTS. The success of a workshop production in 2007 led to a full, four-week run in New York in 2009.
Rogers’ name may well ring a bell with older theater fans, particularly among readers with a background in the region’s college theater. As a playwright, he was already producing worthwhile work during his undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill in the mid-1990s.
After his move to New York, Rogers’ works slowly gained greater recognition. An early favorable mention in the New York Times for an entry to a feminist play festival led to further opportunities. The Times and publications including Time Out New York and Back Stage favored his work in subsequent years at the New York International Fringe Festival and other off-Broadway venues. At present, an off-off Broadway company, Gideon Productions, is in the midst of staging his new three-play sequence, The Honeycomb Trilogy. The first installment, Advance Man, ran in January. Part two, Blast Radius, premieres at the end of March, with production of the final play, Sovereign, scheduled for this June.
Hope Hynes Love, regional actor, director and drama teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, didn’t know Rogers during his time in Chapel Hill. In fact, she might have never come across his work without the help of New York’s famed Drama Book Shop. Love budgets a sizeable amount each year to maintain what she terms a collegiate-quality library of scripts for her students. “I usually ask them what the college students and MFA students are reading," Love says. "They tend to have roles for my kids.”
A clerk there recommended an anthology with Rogers’ Universal Robots script. Love loved the script, and immediately began asking for the rights.
What Love terms “a robot religious pageant about the genocide of the human race, and why it should never happen again” ultimately asks two questions: what it is to be human—and what it means to be humane.
A student cast pursues answers—in a work that's far from typical high school drama fare—tonight through Saturday. And the playwright will be there when they do: Rogers will be at Friday's performance, and will participate in a talkback with the cast, audience and NC State "biobot" researcher Alper Bozkurt after the show.