Ibsen Meets 'I Robot' in 'Heddatron'
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Henrik Ibsen's classic drama, Hedda Gabler, has been described as cold and impersonal, so maybe it was the perfect choice to cast a New York production of the play with robots. Heddatron is a science fiction twist on the drama featuring a cast that is half human and half robot. But as NPR's Robert Smith reports, combining theater and technology does not always go smoothly.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
Before we get to the robots, let's go back 100 years to the story of Hedda Gabler. If it's been awhile since your college literature course, don't worry. The current production provides a helpful recap. Eleven-year-old Spenser Leigh plays a young narrator giving a book report.
Mr. SPENSER LEIGH (Actor as a Narrator): Hedda Gabler is about a woman named Hedda Gabler. She is sad and angry. She got married to a man she didn't love because he bought her a house. This play taught me not to marry a man who buys me a house. A man that she used to love comes back into her life but then he dies and she's still married to her husband, so she kills herself.
SMITH: In other words, Gabler is the original desperate housewife: sexy, frustrated and manipulative. But producer, Aaron Lemon-Strauss says that the central tension of the play feels little dated. Gabler was trapped in a patriarchal society and had no control over her destiny.
Mr. AARON LEMON-STRAUSS (Producer, Heddatron): It's difficult to grasp that now because the idea of a woman asserting her own prerogatives and having control of her life seems somewhat normal, but at the time it was pretty radical and we thought that a good way to represent that in a modern context is to have those people who are in a different world be portrayed by robots.
SMITH: If you haven't guessed by now, Heddatron is a comedy, albeit a brainy highbrow one. It's a specialty of the production company, Les Freres Corbusier. They're admired in New York theater circles for mounting a musical about urban planning called Boozy and a holiday production of A Children's Scientology Pageant featuring real children spouting the words of L. Ron Hubbard. Heddatron is similarly surreal. A suburban housewife is kidnapped by robots and forced to perform Hedda Gabler as her family tries to track her down.
Unidentified Robot Voice: This time my name was Billy and...
SMITH: At an early rehearsal of Heddatron last month, director Alex Timbers was tweaking the voices of the robots.
Unidentified Robot Voice: This is her. This is her room. This is my head. This is my face. This is...
Mr. ALEX TIMBERS (Director, Heddatron): There's dialogue that is turned into a computer which is what you think of when you think (in a robot-like voice) the moment when robots will. And then there are people who are actually just speaking, the moments when robots will, and then they're being processed.
SMITH: At this point the voices are still coming out of a computer speaker. The life-size sheet metal robots are due to arrive any minute from a workshop in Brooklyn and no one has seen them yet. The producer, Lemon-Strauss, says that the construction of the box took much longer than expected, and everyday brings a new robot-related challenge.
Mr. LEMON-STRAUSS: We were trying to decide between using 1/8" and 1/4" plexiglass for the floor, but the problem is if you use 1/4" plexiglass, the robots can't get up on it, you know, but if you use 1/8", then maybe it cracks under the weight of people walking. All those sort of normal considerations that already make it difficult enough to do low budget theater, are made all the more difficult from robotic needs.
SMITH: Even the humans in the production have to adapt to those robotic needs. Carolyn Baeumler plays the Hedda character.
Ms. CAROLYN BAEUMLER (Actress): I'm gonna have to just be so precise in my physical action because once they set the robot timing, it's gonna, you know, that's gonna be what it is, so it's almost like rehearsing to music.
(Soundbite of applause and cheering)
SMITH: The robots are finally wheeled in.
Unidentified Male: That's Hans.
Unidentified Female: This is Hans.
SMITH: The one that plays the Lovborg character is sleek and buffed, with a huge metallic chest. The one that plays Hedda's husband is dented and slightly rusting with a distinct paunch around the middle. As everyone waits for them to move on their own, there is a small problem.
Unidentified Female: We need to recharge the battery. It takes about four hours to charge the batteries.
Unidentified Female: It takes about four hours to recharge the batteries.
SMITH: It takes another week to fully get the kinks out of the two main robots, but by then they are zipping around the rehearsal space on their tiny wheels at a frightening speed.
(Soundbite of spinning wheels)
SMITH: At this point, the bigger challenge is for the human actors who are often stunned into silence when the robots turn to them.
Unidentified Female: O-o-o-kay. Uh, the, uh, (pages turning) there's something in it of the odor of death. It's like a corsage the day after the dance.
(Soundbite of spinning wheels)
SMITH: But after a few run-throughs, Carolyn Baeumler, the kidnapped Hedda, is holding her own with her metal co-stars. They recreate a famous scene where Lovborg contemplates suicide.
LOVBORG ROBOT: I've torn my own life to bits, a thousand pieces I've scattered them into the fjord.
LOVBORG: You killed a metal child.
Ms. BAEUMLER (As Hedda): Ah, the child.
LOVBORG: I don't know what I'll do. Everything's dark for me now.
Ms. BAEUMLER (As Hedda): Alright, Lovborg, listen to me. Couldn't you arrange that, that it's done beautifully?
LOVBORG: Beautifully with vine leaves in my hair as you used to dream in the old days?
Ms. BAEUMLER (As Hedda): No. I don't believe in vine leaves anymore.
SMITH: The robots are not autonomous. Each one is controlled by one of the women who made them. Cindy Jeffers and Meredith Finkelstein are with Botmatrix, a group that builds robots for artists. Standing backstage with remote controls, Finkelstein says they've really had to think of themselves as part of the cast.
Ms. MEREDITH FINKELSTEIN (Filmmaker, Roboticist, and Programmer): I think there is a character, basically, that the robots have and, you know, you sort of have to figure out what that is and move them according to what we want the audience to feel for the character.
(Soundbite of rehearsal noise)
SMITH: By the end of rehearsal everyone seems relieved. Nothing was broken or destroyed and the cast actually seems to be relating to these big hunks of metal. Director Alex Timbers says despite that old Hollywood adage about working with children or animals, robots are a bigger challenge.
Mr. TIMBERS: They don't always respond to what you want them to do and when you're talking about like a hulking 5'6" metal object on wheels, as a director who likes to micro-manage performance and design, take a step back and let it breath and just hope that no one gets hurt.
Mr. LEMON-STRAUSS: And, again, you know, if the robots end up in a different place, that's funny.
SMITH: Producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss.
Mr. LEMON-STRAUSS: And it's supposed to be able to be appreciated by people who aren't interested in robots, aren't interested in theater, aren't interested in Norwegian theater, but really just want to have a good time.
SMITH: The production of Heddatron begins this week at the HERE Arts Center in downtown Manhatten and runs through the month. Whether or not the play is successful, Lemon-Strauss says that the theater community shouldn't worry about machines taking over. Even without a union, robots are still more expensive and demanding than human actors. Robert Smith, NPR News.
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