I, robot; Riverland Theatre presents ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’

Published 9:31 am Wednesday, October 4, 2017

“R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)” will be opening tonight at the Frank W. Bridges at Riverland Community College.

Based on the 1921 book, which introduced the word “robot,” by Czech author Karel Capek, Riverland Theatre’s performance is a first of its kind. The story was adapted for the stage by Riverland Theatre instructor Susan Hansen, who directs the show.

“This play has never been done before,” Hansen said. “It is a premiere.”

Hannah Bergene, as Helena Glory, right, reacts with astonishment at the acceptance shown by Erica Staat, who plays a robot named Sulla, left, of her robotic existence.

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The play tells the story of a factory that produces worker robots that are sold around the world.

A woman named Helena Glory, portrayed by Hannah Bergene, visits the factory with the hope of helping the robots, and soon finds herself working at the factory.

A year later, as the robots have been changing, they realize they don’t like to work and there is an uprising around the world. The play leaves the audience asking questions about what defines a human and what happens when we rely too much on technology and artificial intelligence.

“I reread (the book) and all of the arguments and philosophy hold true today,” Hansen said about her decision to adapt the book to the stage.

Harry Domin, played by Ian Gearhart, left, talks of a world without human labor, in favor of Rossum’s Universal Robots during the production of “R.U.R.” opening tonight at the Frank W. Bridges Theatre at Riverland Community College. At right is Helena Glory, played by Hannah Bergene, who questions the societal and moral implications of using robots as technological slaves. The production is directed by Susan V. Hansen.

Hansen said one of the challenges of writing a stage adaptation for “R.U.R” was that translations written shortly after the book’s release took some liberties with the original story. Two recent translations have been released that are closer to the original Czech text.

Another challenge Hansen cited was modernizing the 1921 book.

“It was quite an undertaking and I was still writing it when we started rehearsal,” she said. “When we would read it, the actors would sometimes point out that some things didn’t sound right, so I would make corrections. For the actors, it was a workshop.”

The setting and character also proved a bit of a challenge.

“We have actors who play robots and it was a challenge to create robots at different stages of development,” Hansen said. “There was difficulty staging a revolt live on stage. It’s very different from a movie. When a character dies, it has an effect on the audience. The cast members were troopers when I made changes to make it more contemporary.”

Helena Glory, played by Hannah Bergene, left, questions robot Sulla (Erica Staat) about her life as a robot, during the Riverland Community College production of “R.U.R.” which opens tonight at the Frank W. Bridges Theatre. BELOW: Harry Domin, played by Ian Gearhart, left, talks of a world without human labor, in favor of Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Hansen believes the audience will take a significant meaning away from the show.

“We’re just on the verge of a new time where we are relying more on artificial intelligence,” she said. “This is sort of a precursor and warning. It’s entertaining, thoughtful, intense, and brings up a lot of good points about ethics, responsibility, commerce, war and humans trying to make themselves better.”

Show times for “R.U.R.” will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 4-7 and 2 p.m. Oct. 8.

Tickets are available for purchase at www.riverland.edu/tickets or at 507-433-0595. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Riverland Theatre Box Office from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and one hour before show time. Tickets are $13. Riverland Community College students receive two free tickets to each production.

For more information, contact Lindsey Duoos Williams at 507-434-7930 or Lindsey.Williams@riverland.edu.