Electric, if it weren’t for those glitches
The Quasimondo's latest work of physical theatre tries to go too many directions at once, but a handful of excellent elements stand out.
It’s the near future, and robots have taken over as the dominant species. One evening, at a cabaret show run by a human MC but performed by robots, a detective unit arrives, somehow alerted to the presence of a computer virus that has infested the company.
That’s all I can tell you of the plot of Robot Cabaret, the Quasimondo’s latest show, because that’s all I’ve been able to puzzle out. Director Brian Rott and assistant director Michael Guthrie (playing the MC) have brought what could be a great show to bear upon their stage, but it’s clearly a beta test, not a polished production.
They do get some leeway since the production’s meant to be slightly nonlinear, and the cabaret is supposed to be imperfect. These aren’t the flawless android Cylons of Battlestar Galactica here; the robots in Robot Cabaret are still developing, and speak and act in stereotypical I-am-robot cadences. That makes their most successful bits a solid mix of humorous and endearing, especially when they are trying to evolve past their mechanical limits.
But the production sometimes feels too constrained by its own limits. Not its material or monetary limits – yes, the cabaret tables are rickety, and the costumes are cost-effective, but they don’t distract overmuch.
The limits in question are quantitative; the Quasimondo cast tries to go too many directions at once and pulls itself thin. They’ve tried to solve the problem by making the play a sequence of interconnected beats, but that only crosses their circuits – the play’s plot is already threadbare enough before it’s mixed in with abstract flashbacks and the cabaret performers’ song-and-dance numbers. The result is a play so confusing in the aggregate that I wasn’t sure whether or not a short ad lib in the second act was a real technical difficulty or part of the show (although it was real, they handled it well, considering).
The first act’s stylized flashbacks were especially suited to stand alone. “Art and the Machine; Experiment,” a tale of a scientist (Sarah Mellstrom) working to teach her robotic apprentice (Jenni Reinke) how to create art, could have been a rather good short play in and of itself, especially with the coda later on where a chilling Reinke logically deduces she must stop serving as a pacemaker for her dying creator. “The Boy Genius” put the company’s dance skills on display, but also gave the young but talented Alex Roy (a senior at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, if you can believe it) a chance to shine as the boy responsible for creating robots – and the lead dancer responsible for spicing up a sluggish first act.
The second act had the benefit of a few little brilliances to spread out: a giant robot fight, a jawdropping hula hoop routine from Becca Lucas, Jessi Miller and especially Annetta Martin, and a flat-out cool puppeteering bit that must be seen to be beloved. Its peak was “Batteries Not Included,” a poetic, poignant dance performed by Miller with Thom Cauley, playing a butler-type android called Mopbot. Holding onto life by a trio of extension chords, Miller winds about the stage, in a quasi-romantic interplay with Cauley you can’t take your eyes off of.
Guthrie, as the cabaret’s MC, ties together these successful experiments and the show’s less exemplary attempts with a patter perfectly suited for the role, if a bit unsteady in its delivery. He’s the character meant to tie together the play’s disparate aims, as both a facilitator of its multiple acts and a player in its alleged overarching plotline, and while he isn’t entirely successful, he does a good enough job that you can see what he’s going for. If only Robot Cabaret had managed to get there.
Robot Cabaret will run at the Milwaukee Fortress through March 2; all shows are at 8 p.m. save a 2 p.m. matinee Feb. 24. Tickets are $15, $12 for students, and can be purchased online or at (717) 347-8274 (34-QUASI).