Automata for the People

Robot Theater Project Offers Circuit Training

Autograph seekers: Ready your pens. New stars have been born. Or soldered, maybe. Meet Takeo and Mimoko, each a Robovie R3. With a couple of human actors, they perform I, Worker, one of two plays comprising Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka Univeristy’s Robot Theater Project at the Japan Society.

Takeo and Mimoko are small, round creatures, perhaps three or four feet high. Each looks like a lost Jetsons contraption cross-bred with a gumdrop. Even though their motions are limited (shaking their heads, blinking their eyes, raising and lowering their arms), they manage to convey a range of emotion: disaffection, worry, compassion. And if there is justice in the theater world, fans should mob them at the stage door. Can they hold the felt tip to sign your glossy? Let’s hope.

In I, Worker, married couple Yuuji (Hiroshi Ota) and Ikue (Minako Inue) live with two robots who apparently cook, clean, and help with the grocery shopping. But one of them, Takeo, no longer wishes to work. He notes that nothing is wrong with his circuitry and yet, he says, “I don’t feel like working…at all.” His inexplicable reluctance is a foil for Yuuji, a depressive who also no longer feels like having a job.

Written and directed by Seinendan’s head, Oriza Hirata, it’s a short and sweet but also complicated piece, one that delves into the very nature of work (the word “robot” derives from the Czech word for “worker”), while exploring ideas of beauty, sorrow, and mutual aid. There is real tenderness in the scenes when Inue tries to convince Takeo to at least take a walk, while Mimoko tries to lift Yuuji’s funk by asking him to teach her to cook his favorite curry. But even were the play to simply feature Takeo and Mimoko nodding their heads and zooming across the floor, it would still charm.

Its companion piece, Sayonara, is a far more haunting one-act, owing largely to its lead, a disturbingly lifelike android called the Geminoid F, developed, like the Robovies, by Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro. The Geminoid F, capable of dozens of distinct facial expressions, looks uncannily like a real woman. She can’t walk or move her body much, but in the low lighting that Hirata supplies you can also trick yourself into believing that she breathes and lives. (Indeed, it took a furious bout of Internet searching to convince me she really was a mere android. Well, to mostly convince me.)

In Sayonara, the Geminoid F is bought by wealthy clients to care for the dying by sitting with them, chatting with them, and reciting poetry, typically of a rather gloomy kind. As with I, Worker, it is meant to make us reflect on what it means to live and what it means to die--what it is, in essence, to be human.

As sophisticated as Ishiguro’s creations are, they are not yet so dexterous that they can take a proper bow. It doesn’t matter. You should use your own nimble hands to applaud them nonetheless.

 
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