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REVIEW: Robots v Art | Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Sydney

Robots v Art tingles with wit and tiny surprise packages, with golden performances to boost. Writer Travis Cotton has some big questions to ask in a very silly skit.

Simon Maiden in Robots v Art | Bondi Pavilion Theatre

Here is the news: robots have taken over the world. No, not Ruddbots. Robots. (About time.) It’s the cyber-coup we had to have. Being the pragmatic, unsentimental technology they are, the robots have summarily executed the human race. They find “chaining” to be the most efficient means. They had them working slavishly in underground mines, but this seems to have been a temporary measure only.

Giles, however, finds himself to be the last remaining specimen of homo sapiens. Executive Bot, a leader neither fearful or fearless, but neutral, has written a play. This because, like the resurrected Ruddbot, he has a bright, new vision. The environment has been restored to its former, pre-human glory. It’s still a jungle out there, but now, of the best possible kind. Essentially, the robot race has solved all intraplanetary problems. Only a Miss Universe contestant could’ve done it otherwise. But the Executive Master Bot, hereinafter EMB (Simon Maiden), has realised the one remaining area of endeavour in which robots have yet to triumph is the arts. Regrettably, the world’s galleries have become recharging stations.

Giles is, or was, a playwright and theatre director. He’s been spared in the service of EMB’s vision. EMB, of course, isn’t terribly well-versed in the vagaries of production and, initially, demands a presentation of his play same day. Giles brashly (he’s got nothing left to lose, since his entire family has already been despatched) informs EMB that his demand can’t possibly be met. I mean, he hasn’t even read the script yet. He needs time to cast and at least three weeks to rehearse. He’ll also need beer and wine. And, because he’s Australian, he’ll need a lot of it. As if theatre direction isn’t a big enough ask at the best of times, Giles has been charged with an even bigger challenge. He must make EMB feel. If he fails, he’ll be subjected to the same fate as his fellows.

Robots v Art has been written and directed by Travis Cotton and is currently enjoying a season, on behalf of Tamarama Rock Surfers, at its residence at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, by way of La Mama in Melbourne. To reflect that it’s wildly entertaining is to reveal nothing surprising. The script veritably tingles with wit and tiny surprise packages. Casting shows almost as much angular humour as the text. Performances are golden.

Daniel Frederiksen is Giles, who pretends to be nothing other than he is, which is much like the rest of us non-robots: a flawed, forgiving, frustrated, feisty, fucked-up, affable, agitated, apathetic, hard drinking bloke, wracked by self-doubt and brimming with behavioural contradictions. All too human. He has little option but to take up the task set for him by EMB. The alternative is hard labour, two kilometres underground, pick-axing zinc. His net isn’t cast very wide before he settles on a decommissioned Soldier Bot (redundant now the human race has been run), played by Paul Goddard and diminutive, token Fembot to which he takes a shine (Natasha Jacobs).

All the actors take to their roles as if born to them. Maiden, in his tuxedo and bow tie, looks every inch the old school impresario, or would, if not for his robotic retardation: he isn’t programmed for irony, sarcasm; that kind of thing. His clueless, poker-faced reactions to Giles’ putdowns, sendups and jibes are precious. Goddard is close to Chaplinesque, as a maladroit mechanism. A little like Marvin, the depressed robot in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Goddard’s tin man is phobic about his huge hands; well, they’re more utilitarian claws, than hands. He’s worried it may inhibit his acting and that he might become a focus for derision by the audience. He’s one sensitive robot. A bit of a drama queen. Quite the prima donna, in a monotonous, binary kind of way. Jacobs, too, demonstrates a blinking, asexual humanoid¬† can be a big turn-on. This cyborg is one helluva babe, attracting the attentions of both EMB and Giles.

Behind the affectionate humour and ironic ingenuity (exemplified, to cite but one instance, in the clawbot struggling, repeatedly, to pick up a pencil) is a quiet critique about what we’re doing (nay, what we’ve done) to a wonderful world, by way of industrialisation and economic rationalism. Not only are we eradicating species at an unprecedented rate, but risking extinction of creative pursuits, by diminishing their relative value alongside more tangible, measurable endeavours, like mining. It comes down to the banality of everyday commerce. When an app is free, who needs to pay for a book? When you can stream millions of tracks gratis, why buy an album?

But rather than “chain” us with these dilemmas, Cotton invests confidence in us to make these discernments. That makes him a discerning writer. And director. Like the Ruddbot, he may not be the Messiah. But he’s a very funny boy. In Robots v Art, unlike Blues v Maroons, or Rudd v Gillard, only we can decide the score.

The details: Robots v Art plays the Bondi Pavilion Theatre until July 7. Tickets on the company website.

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