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Although over the years it has slipped past the designation of theatrical classic, Czech sci-fi pioneer Karel Capek's once-successful 1921 play could, if nothing else, be remembered for coining the term "robot"—and, in its 1922 Broadway debut, for introducing a 21-year-old fledgling actor named Spencer Tracy as one of the mass-produced artificial beings. With a title that truncates the fictional Rossum's Universal Robots into an early example of marketable corporate abbreviation, Capek's vision is today still eerily fatalistic as it introduces a future, set in 1932, which has compromised humanity for profitability. "It is astonishing how many churches and madmen there are in the world," Capek ruminates in his jarringly prophetic worldview.

The theme of creating artificial human life that gangs up and destroys its makers is hardly new, yet Capek's play is still fascinating for its cautionary social implications and its indisputable tongue-in-cheek humor. "No," one of R.U.R.'s staff observes as the robots begin to show signs of human emotion, "this is no case of ordinary robot cramp."

Tiger Reel has adapted this obscure-though-landmark work with deep deference to the author's intellectual admonitions and dry wit. As director, Reel crams the stage with continuously stark human and robotic tableaux and features his own strident soundtrack complete with clanking metal echoes and repetitive industrial noise, all augmented perfectly by Matt Richter's ghostly lighting effects that throw huge shadows on the theatre's walls.

The cast is uniformly game, trusting Reel's interpretation, collectively harking back to a bravely ambitious acting style reminiscent of early B-movie talkies. There are moments when some ensemble members—particularly Jamil Chokachi as the company's CEO and Sarah Lesley as the resident ingénue android—should save their vocal power for use in more judicious moments, but generally the performances are golden, especially Gretchen Koerner's as a goofy, continuously gung-ho scientist and Tee Williams' as the management's resident blue-collar Everyman who, as the last human being on earth, delivers a smashingly direct and uncharacteristically simple monologue that ends the play with considerable provocation for apocalyptic—yet not quite hopeless—thought.

Presented by Action! Theatre, [via] Corpora, and Peformance R&D House at the Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
April 18May 16. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.
(800) 838-3006 or www.action-theatre.com.