Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Cutting Ball Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Without You

Rebecca Pingree, Nic Sommerfeld, Jessica Dim,
and Alexis Royeca

Photo by Ben Krantz
"All science is hubris, Miss Glory." This line, spoken by Dr. Domin (Nic A. Sommerfeld) neatly sums up the core theme of Rossum's Universal Robots or RUR. The play, written in 1920 by Karel Capek, (translated by Paul Selver and adapted for this Cutting Ball Theater production by Chris Steele, who also directs) tells the story of a "mad" scientist, who–from his island lair–develops a technique for the "production of artificial people," with the hope they will free humankind from the need to work, and ultimately reduce the cost of virtually everything to virtually nothing. But, as so often happens in dystopian tales like this, the technology overcomes the good intentions of its creators, with tragic results.

Just as the pioneers of the internet failed to imagine the negative impacts of social media, the robots in RUR ultimately break their bonds in a "robo-lution" that is almost Darwinian in its scope. As they "evolve," the robots exceed their creators in strength and intelligence. And, being perfectly rational in their thought processes, they see no further utility in sharing the planet with humanity.

There has likely never been a more apt time to stage RUR, as society faces a potentially existential threat in the form of artificial intelligence. Cutting Ball, operating on a limited budget (and in an area of the Tenderloin with a tent encampment of the unhoused just outside its doors, heightening the sense of a post-apocalyptic future), manage to infuse just enough imagination, humor, and audience participation to overcome a confusing and overly long second act.

The first act, however, rockets right along–and is preceded by a clever prologue (delivered by robots) that establishes the setting, lays out the ground rules for audience participation, and explores "questions about the nature of humanity." In the first scene we meet the aforementioned Dr. Domin, the General Manager of Rossum's Universal Robots as he dictates missives to various customers about their orders, with a delightfully bureaucratic tone. This task accomplished, Dr. Domin greets a very important guest to the island factory where the robots are produced: Helena (Alexis Royeca), the daughter of the President. Dr. Domin explains to her the history of the company, laying out how the technology works–though his presentation is cleverly constrained by having key elements "redacted," indicated by a loud buzz and the word "redacted" appearing in large red letters on the projection screen upstage. (The set, with that screen in a large cabinet and an adaptable sort of desk area, is by Carlos Antonio Aceves.)

The four actors–who play both humans and robots–acquit themselves relatively well, performing with tremendous energy and commitment to their roles. But special mention goes to Jesse Dim, whose deadpan robotic expression and mechanically graceful moves (rather like a robotic praying mantis) are highlights of the evening.

The staging includes some entertaining (though silly) robot dance breaks, and Steele shows great imagination in telling the story, using projections, sound effects, and audience members stepping in as robots to explore the larger issues of the play: what is humanity? What is a soul? Who are the masters and who are the slaves? There's a lovely moment (which may be in the original text, but I'm guessing it was added by Steele) when Dr. Domin is asking if it can do something for him. "I can," the robot replies. Dr. Domin narrows his request: "Will you?" "Yes," comes the robot's answer, but it doesn't move. "Now!" Dr. Domin concludes, neatly encapsulating the limits of robot intelligence and the importance of accurate and complete programming.

In act two, which takes place some ten years later, Helena and Dr. Domin are now a couple, the robots have evolved tremendously and, like a zombie army, invade the island intent on eliminating their human overlords. But this sadly all takes far too much time to unfold. Ultimately, despite the timeliness of RUR and some imaginative staging by director/adaptor Steele, the slog of a second act undercuts what could be a very powerful production addressing vitally important issues.

RUR runs through November 12, 2023, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $15-$100. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 415-525-1205, or visit