Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Universal Robots

Stephen Hawking: The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.
According to an interview in the New York Times, the exceptional playwright Mac Rogers would seem to disagree with Stephen Hawking. He says, “If you know how long it takes to get a robot to cross a room, the last thing you’re scared of is that they’re going to turn against you.”

Cheek, Howard
Photo: Deborah Alexander

And it's true that today's robots seem unlikely to rule the world; robotic salamanders and vacuum cleaners just aren't the stuff of nightmares. Yet in the wonderful Universal Robots, Rogers shows us how we could end up in the world of Stephen Hawking's fears (and Bill Gates's and Elon Musk's). How? Tiny innocent step by tiny innocent step.

Universal Robots, inspired by by Karel Capek's 1920 play R.U.R. (RUR = Rossum’s Universal Robots) starts just after World War I, yet its philosophical and pragmatic concerns resonate today and will continue to do so in the future. Structured as a sort of theatrical-religious-historical pageant, Universal Robots is narrated to us as a fable, a warning. "We tell the story," say the presenters, "That we never forget... That we never grow complacent... That we remain always vigilant... That life shall never again perish from the Earth."

The story begins in a cafe where Karel Capek and his (fictional) sister Josephine meet friends each Friday to discuss politics, art, and, yes, the meaning of life. The conversation veers from light-hearted banter to heated arguing: What is the value of art? Is there a god? Is it ever worth killing thousands to improve the lives of millions? Is communism more fair than democracy?

Top row: Nikki Andrews-Ojo, Greg Oliver Bodine,
Hanna Cheek, Jorge Cordova, Tandy Cronyn

Bottom row: Neimah Djourabchi, Jason Howard,
Tarantino Smith, Sara Thigpen, Brittany N. Williams

One night they are joined by a stranger who has seen Josephine and Karel's most recent play, which posits a world where women are not allowed to give birth to an artist until they have produced a drudge to get the real work done. The stranger says, "...what if you could have Drudges that aren’t human beings?" and unveils a humanoid automata. The rest of the play takes off from there; you'll get no spoilers from me.

As is often true of Rogers's work, Universal Robots brims with riches. It is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and heart-breaking. It can be enjoyed on many levels, from not-so-simple entertainment to a treatise on humanity. It is filled with throwaway jokes, fascinating characters, and warnings about the future.

Universal Robots is not without imperfections. It takes too long to get started; everything before the presentation of the automata feels like a preface, and there's too much of it. Is it churlish to ask for a smaller serving of riches? Perhaps, but the first act could be tightened.

Another problem is that, when I saw the show, some of the performers had not found the exact right calibration in their performances between human and cartoon. I know from director Jordana Williams's work on the Honeycomb Trilogy and elsewhere that she's a master of that calibration, and I suspect that the performers will get there (I saw a fairly early preview). Otherwise, the show is quite well-directed and well-acted.

The performers are Nikki Andrews-Ojo, Greg Oliver Bodine, Hanna Cheek, Jorge Cordova, Tandy Cronyn, Neimah Djourabchi, Jason Howard, Tarantino Smith, Sara Thigpen, and Brittany N. Williams. They all contribute mightily, but Hanna Cheek and Jason Howard are standouts. Cheek is a brilliant listener. There are scenes in which she is mostly watching, yet you know who she is, what she's feeling, what she wants, and how she's being affected. Howard is a master of subtlety, and he gets under your skin with quiet but deeply affecting performances.

The scenic design (Sandy Yaklin), costumes (Amanda J. Jenks), lighting (Jennifer Linn Wilcox), and sound (Jeanne E. Travis) successfully evoke a series of locations, a sense of time and place, and insight into the characters.

When they announce the nominees for best play on the Tonys on Sunday, it will be clear that the best isn't always on Broadway. Universal Robots should be on that list.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row)

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