Once upon a robot

“Heddatron” robots invade Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe through June 9

Walls surrounding the Tempe Performing Arts Center courtyard were plastered with tidbits of robot trivia and images of robots once seen on screens big and small for opening night of Elizabeth Meriwether’s “Hedatron” — which imagines a pregnant housewife’s capture by friendly robots. It’s her “Calgon, take me away” moment and it’s glorious.

As “Heddatron” opens, five robot operators donning black garb and headgear form a tight circle on stage. They’ve got remote controls in hand during what looks like a pre-game huddle complete with “all for one and one for all” hand gesture. Once they’re seated in the front row, various characters begin to fill in different spaces on the stage.

The kitchen and living room of a home shared by two parents and a school-age daughter. Also parts of a home shared by writer Henrik Ibsen, his wife and the resident “kitchen slut.” Think maid in the missionary position. And yes, “Heddatron” is most certainly a mature content play — so leave the little ones home to play with their own dolls and robots.

Mounting a show takes plenty of blood, sweat and tears. But injecting this show with robots also took wiring, wheels and gears. And heart. Every robot has it’s own personality, reflected through design, voicing, sound effects and more. Robot designers, builders and operators all deserve high praise. And a good night’s sleep after working nearly round the clock in some cases.

I sometimes run into folks who lament the Valley arts scene, feeling it lacks originality, imagination or truly inspired artistry. And “Heddatron” makes me wonder. Maybe they’re not spending enough time with stray cats like Ron May, artistic director for Stray Cat Theatre and director for this show.

Johanna Carlisle (L) and Thea Eigo “Heddatron” (Photo: John Groseclose)

May’s imagination must be a marvelous place, because beauty and biting humor are born there — then delivered with real insight and grace. His many strengths include casting just the right person for each part, as evidenced by Thea Eigo’s performance as “Nugget Gordon.” We’ll all be saying “I knew her when” about that one some day. In a good way.

Eigo plays the daughter of Jane Gordon (Johanna Carlisle) and Rick Gordon (Todd Michael Isaac), and spends much of the play sharing snippets of school reports on Ibsen and other writers while sporting Ibsen-esque sideburns and running through visual aids that look like cue cards. She’s a hoot — and incredibly cute.

Eigo is a Childsplay-trained actor whose bio notes that she’s a 5th grader at Villa Montessori School. Seems she “enjoys music, photography, and collecting sock monkeys” and has a wonderful big sister named Willa. Eigo told me that “Heddatron” is about “a housewife who gets kidnapped by robots.” True enough, but she’ll find other themes in the work as she grows.

Opening nights at Stray Cat Theatre include post-show gatherings in the courtyard, complete with nibbles and libations. I lingered after Friday’s performance to chat with folks about “Heddatron” — asking everyone I talked with a single question: “What’s that play about?”

My first observation was this — in groups of men and women, only the women had a reply at the ready. It’s about aliention or boredom, they told me. About longing for something beyond suburbia, marriage and motherhood. Sorry guys, but more than a few of you drew a blank on this one.

Johanna Carlisle as Jane Gordon in “Heddatron” (Photo: John Groseclose)

The most notable exception was Damon Dering, artistic director for Nearly Naked Theatre (yup, they go there). It’s about learning to love the very thing that traps you, he told me — but with a bit more eloquence. “Heddatron” is fun fare for folks steeped in the study of existentialism, or those who wake up living it each day. Think art meets angst.

A fellow former stage mom told me it was about Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” the play mama Gordon is forced by robots to read in the rain forest after her abduction. True enough, but you needn’t read it to enjoy the show. Trying too hard to understand “Heddatron” won’t up the fun factor, so it’s perfectly fine to just show up and be entertained.

Still, those with an artistic bent will appreciate the play’s ponderings about the nature of art and artist. Where you live will likely influence your view of the “Heddatron” landscape. Some will see the struggle for women’s liberation. Others the clash of society with self. Some the tyranny of technology or commercialism. And some their own lives.

A local actor turned entrepreneur honed in on the scientist whose musings about “synchronicity” are projected onto a screen hanging over the back of the stage. That, and the snappy bow tie, earn him big points for originality. Seems folks once feared dark consequences if robots grew self-aware, unmindful of the perils facing humans grappling with their own automatization.

Stray Cat Theatre performs “Heddatron” through June 9, and they’re already looking ahead to season #11 featuring “punkplay” by Gregory S. Moss, “Wolves” by Steve Yockey, “Sons of the Prophet” by Stephen Karam and a Trista Baldwin play with a rhyming title best not mentioned in a parenting publication. (Snaps to literary manager Emily Rubin, who helped snag rights to perform the Karam piece.)

Theater works come and go, but on-stage robots are rare and worth the journey into alternative theater Stray Cat style even for folks who’ve yet to develop a taste for such things. Leave your prim and proper behind, and head to Tempe for a performance that’ll reduce your own roboticism. Great theater makes us more human. Thank Meriwether and May for that.

– Lynn

Note: “Heddatron” includes scenes depicting sex, suicide and other mature themes. Click here for information on local and national suicide prevention resources. Click here to explore The Ibsen Museum in Oslo.

Coming up: The press tribe gathers to honor its own

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