Fringeworthy

Hip Shot: R.U.X. (Rockwell’s Universal seXbots)

Adam R. Adkins and Amy Kellett as an engineer and his robot companion.

Warehouse

Remaining Performances:
Tuesday, July 24th at 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 28th at 5:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 29th at 2 p.m.

They Say: "Louis Rockwell Jr. has a sexy new business plan for his father's stodgy old robot company. Unfortunately, robot sex is illegal; his chief programmer sexually repressed; and his stodgy old father not quite dead. Time to think outside the box..."

Chris's Take: Did you ever see A.I., that science-fiction movie about the little boy robot who is purchased by two grieving parents after their biological son falls into a coma? And then when their real kid wakes up, they abandon his robotic substitute in the woods even though it's an advanced, sentient model that turns out to be capable of experiencing emotion? I saw the film upon its release in 2001. All I remember about it now is that I found the whole thing tonally wonky, and that it had a really long coda tacked onto it, set hundreds or thousands of years after the action of the main story, that was so condescending it actually made me angry.

Rockwell's Universal seXbots offers persuasive evidence that played as comedy, this kind of material can really work. Originally presented in five serialized installments at last fall's Hope Operas charity performance series, Maurice Martin's clever script spills over with funny observations about the demands we puny humans place on our digital servants. The sturdy comic actor John Tweel plays Louis Rockwell, Jr., scion of a robotics empire who has a scheme to get the law barring sex between humans and robots repealed. But the Stepford-like "carebots" his father marketed as (chaste) companions for the sick or lonely lack the sophistication to satisy our primal longings—there's a recurring gag about their ill-timed offers of hugs. The software whiz Louis hires (the marvelous Aubri O'Connor) has ethical reservations about the project, but she can't resist the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to make Rockwell's 'bots more lifelike and alluring.

The moral repercussions of creating sentient creatures is of course one of the richest veins of science fiction, but I'm hard pressed to think of another place I've seen the material given this satisfying a comedic workout. Director Sun King Davis, or somebody, came up with a great, and consistent set of behaviors for the robots: I love the way Amie Cazel, Ben Gibson, and Amy Kellett, playing droids of varying sophistication, all roll their eyes up and to the left when they're downloading new software. And Momo Nakamura has a funny recurring cameo as a Japanese-made pleasure model Louis has procured in the name of market research. "I hope I don't get raped by an octopus!" she chirps.

There a great risk of boorishness here, but every potentially off-putting joke is swiftly undercut by a much sharper one about why any of us would want a toy that acts this way. Even comic targets that seem too crass and obvious to be funny—penis size insecurities, embarrassment about farting in bed—all speak to the fundamental inscrutability of human emotion. (Adam R. Adkins is especially deft in his handling of this material, in the role of an engineer who has kept company mainly with robots since his painful divorce.) We've all met people who seem to be incapable of embarrassment, but imagine the difficult of teaching a robot to feel it, or understand it. Martin's script has great things to say about how how our behavior could change if we all had the option to replace the people in our lives—buggy, judgy, demanding; bed-farters all—with slaves we can program to conform to our whims.

I'm making R.U.X. sound like an eggheady show for eggheads, or the weaker second half of Wall*E, and it isn't either of those things. Its observations about human nature are expertly coded into the shape of a briskly-paced and rewarding comedy.

See It If: You roll deep with H.A.L. 9000, Roy Batty, Johnny Five, and Lt. Cmdr. Data.

Skip It if: You prefer your robots Teutonic and homicidal.

...