Robots have a uniquely modern place in pop mythology, melding human and machine, lovable cartoon and nightmare vision. And they started out on the stage, when Karel Capek invented the word for his 1921 play R.U.R. In Robot Cabaret, the latest piece by the inventive troupe The Quasimondo, we see a full spectrum of our metallic friends: funny robots, scary robots, sexy robots, lifelike androids and mechanisms resembling large silver jellyfish. They walk, they sing, they dance (sort of). It's a playground of creative ideas; unfortunately marred by a presentation that's mostly too sloppy even to be artsy.
Quasimondo generates their material as a group, and it's clear that their imaginations were fully engaged; the future world they create is intriguing and original. We're not told why, but humans are now a minority, tolerated at best by the synthetic dominant species; the cabaret is an effort by some of our new overlords to create a space where human and artificials can mingle in a fairly relaxed atmosphere. The variety show format—sort of a cyber-Muppet Show— allows a wide gamut of creative voices and performance styles. There are the android comics, whose idea of humor is to simply be rude. "You're from Milwaukee? That must really suck!" Some of the dance pieces are surprisingly moving: one vignette shows a boy genius who discovers the secret of artificial intelligence, only to be casually murdered by his creation; a touching pas de deux depicts a robot who gives his friend the last of his energy through jumper cables to the heart. There are animatronic impersonations of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Michael Jackson; there's an odd rendition of "Turkey in the Straw," featuring a computer keyboard as a musical washboard. There's a clever sketch about a scientist trying to teach a robot to make art, and even an epic battle between a giant robot and a space-age ninja hero. If an act goes on too long, the performers are removed by a giant magnet instead of a hook. It's all tied together by the story of an android detective searching for a rogue computer virus. There's a live band, a DJ, and even a soulful blues number presented by the human M.C.
It's a strangely endearing dystopia, and fabulously imaginative. The company has spent hours lovingly crafting their DIY sets and costumes out of cardboard, mylar, and everything from plastic buckets to heating duct pipe. So sad, then to have to report that this boundless creativity founders from a simple lack of discipline. The acts lumber, one after another, like the clumsy robots presenting them; whatever led humanity to become an endangered species, it wasn't these imperfect machines. Props break, scenery falls over, and the group choreography is executed so lamely it's beyond amateurish. Still, you have to give them credit for their commitment to group work and physical theater—nobody in Milwaukee is doing anything like it, partly because it's much harder to whip up a show out of nothing than to perform a ready-made script.
Go to Robot Cabaret to catch glimpses of the show it might have been, if, in addition to cobbling together their Star Trek automated doors (which are awesome, by the way), they'd also taken time to polish their act—which one more week of rehearsal and a strong directorial hand could have easily done. The Quasimondo kids clearly had a great time putting this together. When they learn that it's even better to tighten up a show so that it's just as much fun for the audience, Milwaukee will have a wonderful new theater company.
by The Quasimondo Physical Theatre
Feb. 21, 22, 23, 28 at 8 p.m and Feb. 24 at 2 p.m.
March 1, 2 at 8 p.m.
The Milwaukee Fortress, 100 A E. Pleasant St.
Tickets: $15; Students, $12.
Tickets may be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.
For tickets or information, contact (717) 34 Quasi or firstname.lastname@example.org.