Lida Project's R.U.R./lol uses robots to examine what it means to be human
The word "robot" first appeared in the play Rossum's Universal Robotsor R.U.R, written in the 1920s by Czech author Karel Capek. In it, a group of scientists create human-like creatures that ultimately rise against their makers. In the ensuing battle, human beings are wiped out and the formula for creating robots is destroyed, so that everything human, even the work of human hands, seems about to vanish from the world.
RUR/lol, the latest offering from the LIDA Project, Denver's experimental theater group, is loosely based on the Czech play. After last night's preview, it opens tonight and runs through March 2.
The 1920s were a golden age for experimentalists, observes LIDA artistic director Brian Freeland. "As a company, we were always impressed by R.U.R. as a groundbreaking piece of theater," he says. "There's a lot of angst about man versus machine there, and today those themes seem equally present."
Despite its theme, the structure of R.U.R. is traditional -- but the structure of LIDA's version is anything but. This is an ensemble piece that utilizes multimedia to create "a very immersive environment, a combination of high-tech projections and low tech -- like an old circuit board that turns light switches on and off," Freeland says. "And it really is a benchmark for us to present to an audience: Look at all the tech we've made, how it works, how it creates beautiful things and also works as a cacophony, an onslaught. Our goal to highlight how what we've made of our technical life is very chaotic; it's not human at all."
R.U.R./lol begins where Capek's plot ends. "In the original there's this glimmer of hope -- of the last two robots becoming almost the purveyors of a new race," Freeland says. "We pick up years later as these robots sit and wait and realize that there is no original spark, no new seed of life. They are somewhere trapped between the idea of complete artificial intelligence and what artificial intelligence looks back at: the makers and the controllers. ... There are no more humans. There's no life left except for these robots in somewhat of a purgatory, waiting for the end. They don't need the things we need now. Do they look back and emulate what human behavior is? We used that idea to examine what it means to be human from the outside in."
Capek's ending is "very grounding, almost religious," Freeland adds. "I wouldn't say that we've lost that. But sometimes that larger sense of self can make one feel a little small. It can be a religious feeling to let go of the self, to cede our consciousness to artificial intelligence, to robots. But it can also be humbling to think of things ending as they do, with a whimper."
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