'RUR': Robots revel in steampunk

Thursday November 17, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- "RUR" is about technology gone wild -- literally as robots manufactured on a remote island and sold to the world as cheap labor are suddenly given souls. The newly self-aware machines declare war against the human race and wipe it out, except for one man -- the man who designed them.

It's the stuff of a CGI big screen epic. In fact, "RUR" is a play written in 1921, in the aftermath of World War I, by a Czech playwright, Karel Capek, who went on to write "The Insect Comedy" and "The Macropoulos Secret" -- all of them expressionist plays that examine the consequences of mankind's greed, self-indulgence, narcissism.

"I think it's still fresh," says Sam Slack, who is directing "RUR" for BCC Players in a production that opens Friday in the Boland Theatre at the community college's Koussevitzky Arts Center, where it is scheduled to run through Sunday.

"I think it still says all the things it said in 1921 about what it means to be human, about the plight of the worker, about what it means to love."

Slack, who holds down a day job as facilities manager at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre, describes himself as "a big sci-fi freak." He's set "RUR" within a steampunk framework -- a setting that mixes old and new technology in a kind of alternate universe. Think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells and you have some sense of what's in store.

"A lot of the challenge is the style," Slack said over a coffee at a North Street eatery and coffeehouse.

Physicality important

"The play is broader tham realism. So, I need to encourage my cast (of 16 students from all over Berkshire County) to play to the back of the theater. They're playing for camera close-ups, instead. This is a great opportunity to get hammy so I can bring them back."

The physicality of the robots is another challenge, Slack says.

"They need to be stiff but, at the same time, they need some fluidity."

To that end, Slack has brought in professional actress Tara Franklin to work with his young actors.

"There are so mnay different places you can go with this. It was difficult to cast because I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to take."

His actors were a big help. Their thoughts, their insights during rehearsals have much to do with the final shape of the production.

For Ellen Shanahan, program advisor for BCC's music, theater and arts programs, "RUR" offers the student actors a perfect opportunity to put into practice what they've been learning in class, particularly when it comes to thinking about their bodies.

"It's something unique for them," Shanahan says.

This production also marks a renewal for BCC Players, says Shanahan, who's been teaching at BCC since 1983.

The program has added three adjunct faculty in the areas of technical theater, acting and directing, and theater literature and history.

Gearing up

Where BCC Players has come down to roughly one production a year from its customary three, Shanahan now is gearing up for a return to three. "RUR' will be followed in February by an evening of one-act plays by David Mamet, Harold Pinter and August Strindberg, directed by Jim Frangione; and a musical to be named, in May, directed by Tom Towne.

Meanwhile, Slack says, he and his cast can't wait to get "RUR" before an audience.

"It's just jam-packed with all sorts of good stuff," he said with a delicous glint in his eyes.

To reach Jeffrey Borak:
(413) 496-6212 or


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