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Productions breathe new life into robotic-play genre

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

They blink and breathe and speak like their fellow castmates.

But not all of the actors in “Sayonara” and “I, Robot” are humans; they are androids and robots.

Having a robot character is nothing new.

In 1920, Karel Capek's “R.U.R.,” which popularized the word “robot,” had seven robot characters. More recently, British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's plays “Comic Potential” and “Henceforward” feature robots in pivotal roles.

Seinendan Theater Company goes one step forward.

The Tokyo-based company pairs actual androids and a robot with human actors in a pair of 30-minute one-act plays “Sayonara” and “I, Robot,” which will be performed March 8 and 9 in The Andy Warhol Museum's theater as a presentation of its Off the Wall series.

Both plays are performed in Japanese, with English subtitles projected above the stage.

The production, which appears here as part of a six-city North American tour, was written and directed by Seinendan Theater Company founder and director Oriza Hirata, in collaboration with Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro and the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University.

“It was a unique first opportunity for our Off the Wall series to include this new type of theater work involving high-tech, cutting-edge robotic engineering, perhaps similar to work being done here in Pittsburgh related to Carnegie Mellon's (Robotics) Institute,” says Ben Harrison, curator of performing arts and public programs for the Warhol.

“I, Robot” features two robots that interact with a young human couple in a play that essentially questions the meaning and nature of work and its value and role in contemporary society.

In “Sayonara,” a human-like android reads poetry and takes care of a terminally ill young girl. But their different understanding of the meaning of life and death are called into question when the android malfunctions.

“Working with robots is more challenging. … There are so many issues of creating emotions (while acting) on stage with inanimate objects,” says Bryerly Long, who plays the young girl and also recorded the voice for the android caretaker.

The android she performs with is a real android.

But its movements are actually controlled by an off-stage person.

Because the android's voice is recorded, she is responding to its lines but does not get the reactions she would from a human actor.

“You don't get the spontaneous inside jokes or flash in the eyes you do when something is working well. … It's more lonely,” Long says.

It's also a little odd for Long to hear the android speaking in her voice.

“It's more like acting with myself, like an alter ego,” she says.

Hirata and his Seinendan Theater Company have gained an international reputation as a contemporary Japanese group that believes that life is at once undramatic and mundane but filled with moments that are complex and amazing.

“I think it's interesting that, even through a production that features cutting-edge technology, the content of the plays still seems to deal with ancient, universal and philosophical themes of man versus machine and the nature of humanity and hubris that play out in classic narratives … and question what life and death mean to humans and robots,” Harrison says.

To enhance the contemplative nature of the plays, the Warhol theater seating has been reduced from 130 to 100 seats. That will make it easier to hear the unamplified robots and allow audiences to pick up subtle nuances of the performances, Harrison says.

Bryerly likes that the play attracts engineers, scientists and robotics engineers, as well as theatergoers.

“That's encouraging, because it's rare to see scientists engaging with a play,” she says. “People come away discussing it. It really makes them think.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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