Don’t worry, North American actors: There’s no need to be afraid of Japan.
Osaka University’s Robot Theater Project is in Toronto with two plays by writer/director Oriza Hirata that feature hybrid casts of humans and robots.
But the mechanical performers – an android named Geminoid F and two adorable Robovie R3s – don’t pose any threat to the future livelihoods of our flesh-based ones. And Hirata’s shows demonstrate theatrical thinking that, rather than being futuristic, is actually quite behind the times.
Sayonara, the first short play on the bill, concerns a poetry-reciting android (Geminoid F) who comforts a dying girl (Bryerly Long). Entering the theatre to find the two performers already on a dimly lit stage, one finds it indeed difficult to tell that one of them is not human.
As soon as Geminoid F begins to speak and move around jerkily, however, the illusion slips away: Her lips move slightly out of sync with the recorded voice that speaks her dialogue – the effect being of watching a badly dubbed foreign film live. F certainly has nothing on the lip-synching drag-queen stars of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
Meanwhile, Long, who performs in an impressive four languages, has to time her lines so they match up with the science-fiction banalities prerecorded for her android companion (e.g. “Androids do not like”). The result is a lifeless production.
From a technical point of view, Gemnoid F may be a sophisticated piece of machinery; but from an audience’s vantage point, she seems no more exciting than the animatronics Disney developed in the 1960s for its theme parks. Reciting Rimbaud, she merely seems more pretentious.
Quebec theatre creator Nathalie Claude, meanwhile, had done more engaging work opposite automatons, while Toronto director Evan Webber found a less stilted way of syncing up with an automated performer in his play, Little Iliad.
I, Worker, Hirata’s second show visiting from Japan, is much better. It features two human actors (the very amusing Hiroshi Oti and Minako Inoue) and two big-eyed, boxy robots (Robovie R3 and another Robovie R3). The visuals still seem somewhat of a throwback, though – the orange, female-voiced robot wears an apron, as if gender roles for fembots haven’t advanced since The Jetsons.
In any case, the male human is unemployed and depressed, while the male-voiced robot has similarly lost interest in work. The female human and female-voiced robot try to bring up this topic delicately over a meal.
It’s an original take on our recessionary times, I’ll give Hirata that. And it’s funny, too. It was French philosopher Henri Bergson who first observed in 1900 that the comic usually springs from seeing “something mechanical in something living”; the converse is true, as well.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that Hirata hasn’t really thought through the theatrical uses of androids and robots the way other avant-garde artists have. Indeed, having a robot play a robot is a dull use for them; must they be typecast that way?
I prefer the lifeform-blind casting in American playwright Elizabeth Meriwether’s 2006 hit Heddatron, in which robots kidnap a pregnant housewife and make her perform Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler with them in a jungle. (How has the Shaw Festival not mounted this!?!). Then, there’s the fascinating, creepy world of cyborg performance art – which makes Hirata’s work seems hopelessly old-fashioned in its human/machine segregation.
Even Des McAnuff’s recent stage adaptation of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots explored our love-hate relationship with our robotic servants in a deeper way. That show, based on an album by the Flaming Lips, used puppets to represent robots; all Hirata does here, ultimately, is to use robots as puppets. It’ll be a novelty, for some.