THEATER | Walking Shadow’s “Robots vs. Fake Robots”: Throwdown at the People’s Center!

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When I was in grad school, someone on campus threw a “Sluts and Robots” party. You had to come dressed as a slut, a robot, or—ideally—a slutty robot. I didn’t make it to the party, but attending Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s Robots vs. Fake Robots was definitely the next best thing. Audience members entering the theater get to choose whether to be designated as real robots or fake robots; I chose to be a real robot and was given a name tag that read hello my name is trivial pursuit.

A slutty robot is, in fact, among the many automotons strutting about the People’s Center stage costumed in thrift-shop glamwear. The play is set in the year 6000, when the Earth is ruled by robots who seem to have neglected infrastructure maintenance in favor of choreographing sexy vamps, which they perform largely to stoke jealousy among the humans who constitute the world’s underclass. It works well, especially for Joe (Animal Farm’s John Catron), whose desire to unzip the jumpsuit of his girlfriend Sammie (Lindsay Marcy) has waned. Enlisting the help of a shady robot (Nathan Surprenant) who can remove his human smell, Joe leaves Sammie to live the ultrasexy life of a fake robot.

robots vs. fake robots, presented through june 27 at the cedar riverside people’s center, 425 20th ave. s., minneapolis. for tickets ($14-$16) and information, see walkingshadowcompany.org.

This sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and sometimes it is. The Walking Shadow team have a knack for playing broad satire with a relative restraint that makes it all the funnier—I laughed harder at their Mr. Marmalade than at any other show I’ve seen in the last couple of years—and they make the most of the humor in David Largman Murray’s script. Except for the work of Baz Luhrmann, who they seem to have studied extensively, the robots have a very imperfect grasp of the culture of the humans they were built to resemble; giving themselves names like “Nintendo 64” and “Cranberries CD,” they perform zany historical pageants that reveal their simultaneous disdain for and curiosity about the unsexy race that gave them birth.

Unfortunately, the production quickly founders under the heavy burden of allegory. The cool gods and goddesses, it is revealed, are slowly rusting away, giving the older models—notably Surprenant and, as the aforementioned robot whore, Jennifer J. Phillips—a newfound empathy with the mortal humans they refer to as “Peetles.” (They probably didn’t dare lift the term “muggles”; even in the 61st century, the estate of J.K. Rowling likely maintains a vigilant legal team.) As Joe undertakes to pass as a robot, the show begins to repeatedly, and tediously, underline its thesis that we should all be proud of ourselves and empathetic towards those who are different. This is, coincidentally, also the argument of Joseph Scrimshaw’s An Inconvenient Squirrel. Scrimshaw, though, understands that a little moralizing goes a long way and that what his audience really wants are squirrelly antics. Call me shallow, but at Robots vs. Fake Robots, I wanted more sexy robotic antics.

In the show’s final scene, the wobbly plot finally comes crashing down as Sammie makes the dubious decision to risk her life by presenting an impassioned monologue on the dignity of human life to an uninterested audience of murderous robots. Marcy reaches deep and musters an impressive show of emotion, but even for us “real robots,” she’s preaching to the converted.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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