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Arts & Culture

Run away with ‘Heddatron’ robots

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010

What do 19th-century playwright Henrik Ibsen and three musical robots have in common? They are all featured in Production Workshop’s new performance of Elizabeth Meriwether’s “Heddatron,” opening Friday night in T. F. Green Hall.

The play is based — loosely — on Ibsen’s 1890 drama “Hedda Gabler” which tells the sad story of the title character’s loveless marriage, bored existence and eventual suicide. “Heddatron” offers audiences a decidedly lighter fare while still exploring serious questions of love, freedom and, of course, robots.  

Director James Flynn ’11 said he was very excited not only to work with a large cast, but also to collaborate with individuals across disciplines who helped bring the robots of “Heddatron” to life. The crew includes people from the computer sciences, visual arts and acting community whose innovative work created wonderful robotic characters for the audience to enjoy. The set is an amalgamation of electronic devices, brought together to tease the viewer’s eye, forcing it to jump from television to boom box to ancient desktop computers.

Flynn said he was most interested in the idea of technological revolution across history and what happens when technology literally invades the household.  “How do you structure family, relationships and identity in the face of these kinds of changes?” he asked.

“Heddatron” opens with a projected video of  Jared Bellot ’12, an engineer, reassuring audiences that there is nothing to worry about with regards to robots. “The Singularity,” or the moment when robots will achieve self-awareness, is a long way off, he says. But if this is true, questions a documentarian, played by Josh Wallace ’13, what happened to Jane Gordon?

Jane (Elizabeth Rothman ’11) is an everyday housewife, dissatisfied with her marriage, who spends most of her days reading Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.” She acts as a bridge between the play’s two time periods — her present-day living room and the 1890 household of Henrik Ibsen (Paul Cooper ’11).

Ibsen has his own share of marital problems — his wife Susannah (Abby Colella ’12) shrilly calls him a freak and has an affair with his rival, August Strindberg (Alex Ostroff ’14). Ibsen struggles under the weight of society’s rigid expectations and the role he is forced to play, and these same problems plague Jane centuries in the future.

Both Cooper and Colella put in excellent performances, balancing their characters’ personalities well. Cooper’s reserved and awkward Ibsen draws the audience in, while Colella is every bit the demanding wife, and although the part is a minor one, she infuses her character with enough life and anger-fueled passion that her voice is clearly heard.

The same is true of Jane’s family in modern times. Nugget (Elsia Obus ’13), Jane’s daughter, provides the audience with the occasional Ibsen fun fact from a book report she is presenting to her sixth grade class. In this narrator role, Nugget is enjoyable and heartwarming as she guides the audience through her mother’s ordeal when she is abducted by robots at the end of the first act.

The robots in question are named Hans, Billy and Julie, and they provide some of the best entertainment in the show. Fully functional, the robots move about the stage, interact with actors and even perform a musical number with Jane to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Throughout the first act, Hans and Billy try over and over again to get Jane to notice them — they beckon her to “turn around, bright eyes.” Billy, especially, has fallen in love with the heroine, claiming, “I would melt myself for her.”

When Jane finally does turn around during their musical number, she sees the robots for the first time, and the audience is witness to what is probably the most shocking moment of her life. Jane’s rapid succession of emotions — desperation, fascination and eventual acceptance of the situation — are skillfully portrayed by Rothman, who is an impressive actress even with a machine for a co-star.

The second act begins with Jane awakening in the Ecuadorian robot forests where she is forced to enact “Hedda Gabler” again and again with the robots — and Ibsen. Somehow transcending time and space, Ibsen is present with Jane, urging her to say her lines. The two share a connection built, perhaps, on their similar experiences at home. They both feel trapped in their marriages, in the lives society has prescribed them, and Jane isn’t sure she wants to return. “What’s so absurd about me being happy?” Jane asks her family, who arrive to bring her home.

The characters’ search for love and meaning ­in their everyday lives in the face of societal pressure is not an easy one, but the play gives the audience the impression that such an endeavor is not impossible. The production’s execution of these themes is well-done, and the actors collectively deliver performances that exude both the desperation of their circumstances and a hope for their future — even if they have to battle a robot or two.

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