The robots are coming! R. U. R.eady for ‘R.U.R. Cabaret?’
Deborah Robin and Christopher Showerman in ‘R.U.R. Cabaret’ / Marsha Mason

PASADENA, Calif. — Even though it was only a one-weekend limited run, I was moved to drive out to Pasadena to check out this little show at Porticos Art Space, which had all the prospects of an end-of-the-world-as-we know-it future. With A.I. so much in the air these days—including fears of artificially generated fake electoral spots artfully deployed on social media—I wanted to see if a musical entertainment based on R.U.R., the 1921 play by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, might lend some Actual Intelligence on the subject.

R.U.R. is an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Indeed, the Czech writer is credited with coining the term “robot” and introducing it to the English language. In Čapek’s original concept, robots were constructed of synthetic organic materials and would be what we now call androids, rather than the clanky, metallic mechanical men of 1950s science fiction.

The play captured a global audience with many translations and productions. Even the young Soviet imagination got into the act with a 1935 film Loss of Sensation, which, though based on the 1929 Ukrainian novel Iron Riot with a similar concept, featured robots all prominently displaying the initials R.U.R.

R.U.R. Cabaret, the musical, running about 90 minutes with one intermission, is set in a dystopian future on an island where the robots were originally created to do the work of humans and labor for them indefinitely. However, the robots have been created too well and begin to think independently, and even feel emotion. They start to rebel against their human masters and have taken up arms. Access to the gunboat docked at the harbor, intended for human escape, is blocked. As the human population has declined precipitously to almost 0, is it possible that the human race is doomed?

Even without robots, as the world persists in behavior that endangers our very global existence—war, nuclear extinction, global warming, extinction and pollution of natural resources, pandemic disease—the current reiteration of Čapek’s play as R.U.R. Cabaret couldn’t be more timely.

The book and lyrics are by Kai Cofer, a prolific writer originally from Washington, D.C. Among his previous works, he wrote The Experiment with Larry Evans, who is his R.U.R. collaborator for the musical score. Evans also produced the show and performed at the piano with Rich Faugno on bass and Chris Bafiera on drums. The show contains 22 songs (though only 21 are listed in the program). The director was Christy Mauro Cohen. The show ran for only four performances from May 30 to June 2 (seen the afternoon of June 1).

Justin Cowden opens the show as the Emcee (à la Cabaret) with the welcome song “Don’t Be a Stranger,” and also plays the role of Alquest, one of the robot inventors. We meet Domin (Christopher Showerman), the alpha-type male ruler who tries to minimize the impending threat in comforting his beautiful ingenue wife Helena (Deborah Robin). His name itself implies the desire to dominate. The robots Primus and Radius are played by Emerson Haller and Freddie Paisley. The Stage Manager, summoned from backstage, is Calista Ruiz; “Mindy” and the scientist Dr. Gall are played by Anne Montavon.

The robots have been infected by a virus and must be destroyed, despite the fact that many humans have become attached to them as reliable assistants. “You Shouldn’t Listen to Your Heart” is a key number that reveals just how heartless the human race has become. “Robots of the world: Humanity is our enemy! Man is a parasite!” the robot leaders proclaim. (Don’t forget, Čapek wrote his original play only a couple of years after the Russian Revolution.)

The informal presentation of this material in cabaret mode works both in the play’s favor and disfavor. Favor in the sense that the audience is drawn into a show that presents itself as a casual seat-of-the-pants community affair with tossed-off corny jokes and musical punctuation by a piano chord or a drumbeat, trying to bring these seminal issues to our awareness in a newly conceived medium. And disfavor in that we can hardly take the show with the seriousness it merits.

The religious songs “Praise to Him,” “Wait and Hope” and “There Is a Light” seem like a gratuitous insertion of spiritual uplift in gospel tones that are simply too ironic to contemplate coming from folks who set out to create a whole new breed of creatures that would sooner or later obliterate human life. Though, come to think of it, there sure is a lot of “ungodly” action and thought coming out of the Christian Nationalist evangelical community these days who likely never contemplate the transcendent humanism in Jesus’s Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. If anything the scientists defend their past actions as necessary work, without sorrow or pity, to advance knowledge irrespective of the consequences. Did they truly imagine they were trying to create a perfect world?

What does remain, and is still so depressingly relevant to our own times, is the absolute contempt for life among the corporate class almost everywhere in the world but concentrated in the U.S. as the strongest economic and military power that has ever existed. They built the robots to increase profit, and haven’t stopped yet. Today, many workers themselves feel like robots on call 24/7 with too little time for family or recreation.

Fun fact: Among the cast of R.U.R.’s U.S. premiere, by the Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre in New York City in October 1922, Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien played robots in their Broadway debuts.

Porticos Art Space, managed by the Pasadena Playhouse, is on the grounds of St. James United Methodist Church in Pasadena. When and where the next production of R.U.R. Cabaret will be mounted is as yet undetermined.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.