Robrt Pela: Review of Heddatron

June 04, 2012

Just when the absurdism of alternative theater had begun to seem mundane, along came Elizabeth Meriwether’s Heddatron. The down-beat comedy, first staged off-Broadway by Les Freres Corbusier in 2006, and now staged by Phoenix’s Stray Cat Theater, is best known as “the play with the robots in it,” because … it has robots in it. Real ones, that talk and light up and roll around the stage making witty asides and reciting the lyrics to a Jim Steinman song.

The plot is secondary to the crafty characters and dark commentary it holds aloft, but worth recounting: Heddatron is about a suicidal, pregnant housewife who is abducted by robots. The mechanical men take her to the Ecuadorian rainforest, where they force her to perform Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the literary masterpiece about an unhappy woman who eventually kills herself. Her castmates are also robots, and it’s a blast seeing mechanical versions of Berta, Brock, and Aunt Julie delivering umbrellas and hearing them recite Ibsen. Even without the robots, Heddatron is a bitterly amusing pile of fun, expertly directed by Stray Cat founder Ron May.

In fact, my favorite part of this often funny and literate play involved the characters of Ibsen and his literary rival, August Strindberg—perhaps because both were so engagingly played by Sam Wilkes and Ian Christiansen, respectively. Johanna Carlisle has unfortunately little to do as the robot-captive gal in the rainforest, but once she’s trapped playing Ibsen to a lot of automatons in the second act. Meantime, there’s a lot of talk about singularity and self-awareness and what makes a well-made play, much of it given to 10-year-old Thea Eigo as Carlisle’s daughter. Eigo’s performance is unfortunately spot-on—she behaves precisely as a child her age might, which made me want to claw my eyes out each time she had a scene.

Meriwether is smart about tempering her Ibsen obsession and all that literary commentary with a ton of humor and, well, big shiny robots to entertain those who want sugar in their bromide. And just as the sight of those robots demanding a staged reading of Henrik Ibsen begins to wear thin, a choreographed dance routine to Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” takes us back to that strange sweet spot that Stray Cat Theatre so often provides.