NEW YORK CITY: Whether your first exposure to robots was on TV series like “Lost in Space” or “Small Wonder,” or just with Siri on the iPhone, one thing is sure: Robots are uncanny creatures. This month, two robot-related events unfold in New York City, one devised by Resonance Ensemble and the other presented by Japan Society.
Resonance presents “Connecting Circuits” through Feb. 2, consisting of two shows in repertory: Karel apek’s 1920 classic R.U.R., adapted by Lee Eric Shackleford and directed by Valentina Fratti, and Richard Manley’s The Truth Quotient, directed by Eric Parness, Resonance’s artistic director.
“I actually didn’t know R.U.R. until it was suggested as a companion piece to Truth Quotient,” admits Parness, who soon learned why the play (which coined the word “robot”) has only an obscure following. “The expressionistic style and stock characters are difficult to make compelling to a contemporary American audience,” Parness observes. Still, a timeless message rings true: What does it mean to subjugate a disadvantaged group to benefit the wealthy?
Actual robots do not appear in “Connecting Circuits.” As Parness figures it, apek had something in mind more akin to genetic engineering than to automata. Manley describes three of the characters in his play as “robotic in nature.” While their neural network is as complex as any human’s, according to Manley, “They do not aspire or question or plan or worry.” Manley’s script imagines a world where you can improve upon your loved ones, even after they have passed away. “My concern, and a central theme of my play, is that robots may replace humans by providing other humans the ‘appearance’ of what we need—affection, love, sex and all forms of relationships—because it is so difficult to find and maintain the real thing.”
Meanwhile, actual robots make a showing at Japan Society, with two works from playwright Oriza Hirata, produced by Seinendan Theater Company: I, Worker and Sayonara. Yoko Shioya, artistic director of Japan Society’s performing arts program, has been following Hirata’s work for the past 15 years, and first presented his Tokyo Note in 2000 in the U.S. “That was a masterpiece, which made him famous,” Shioya says. “The show leaves you with a very heavy emotional feeling.”
Hirata is known in Japan for being a pioneer in the Quiet Theatre movement, which Shioya describes in antitheatrical terms. “Very little happens—it’s not like there’s ever a divorce or someone dies. There’s a lot of umms and ahhs, which Japanese people use a lot more than English speakers.” And, as its name suggests, in Quiet Theatre, actors don’t project, as in classical theatre, but speak in casual tones.
For this visit, Hirata teamed up with Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leading world researcher on robotics and the director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University. In I, Worker a husband mourns the death of his son while his wife worries over his depression. Meanwhile, a pair of robot maids, one male and one female, observe how the human husband and wife cry when they watch a sunset. Says Shioya, “The male robot deduces that the humans must be crying because it made them think of something else. The robot offers a very objective analysis of what happens when people have the feeling of sadness.” Robot psychoanalysts, anyone?