In a world where people juggle multiple virtual identities on websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Myspace, it is easy to lose touch with a true sense of self.
A new Chicago theatrical production gives “Hedda Gabler,” by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, a humorous and timely twist that puts robots in the spotlight of this identity crisis. Sideshow Theatre Company’s “Heddatron” runs through April 24 at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre.
For Chicago director Jonathan L. Green, this is a way to tackle current social dilemmas through technology and art.
“So often when we talk about technology in theatre it means really well designed projections,“ Green says. “What drew us to this play is that this is a show that forced us as artists to expand our technology awareness, and a show that deals with the role of technology in our lives.”
Written by playwright, and Michigan native, Elizabeth Meriwether, “Heddatron” tells the tale of Jane Gordon, a depressed and suicidal housewife like Hedda. But Gordon’s plot is juxtaposed with the story of Ibsen himself, a brooding playwright dominated by his overbearing wife. The story is narrated by Nugget, Jane’s precocious daughter who longs to lift her mother out of darkness.
“I think that ‘Heddatron’ is set in our contemporary time when we often feel imprisoned by our technology, when it is a part of our lives that we can’t extract ourselves from,” Green says.
Jane spends all her time in front of a television, disconnected from her family and longing to escape. Her freedom comes in the form of two robots who whisk her away to the jungles of Ecuador and force her to perform scenes from “Hedda Gabler” with them, a sort of play within the play.
“While it’s absurd coming off the page and in performance, there’s something about the way the dialogue flows that seems really truthful to me,” says Brian Grey, who plays Ibsen’s eccentric rival August Strindberg. “The overall theme of the play is about the struggle for freedom and it sort of asks the question: What are you willing to do to achieve freedom?”
The Sideshow Theatre Company, founded in Chicago in 2007 by friends from the University of Virginia, aims to use familiar stories, memories, and images to inspire new conversation and exploration.
When the company decided to make “Heddatron” a part of their season, members set out to find a group of engineers who could tackle the challenge of creating the robotic half of the cast.
Help emerged from the Chicago Area Robotics Group, or Chibots. Chibots is a group of Chicago robot enthusiasts who meet monthly. Lead “Heddatron” engineer Stuart Hecht met Green at his first Chibot meeting, where the director was proposing the “Heddatron” collaboration.
“I love to figure out how to make things move, and since there is no robot store that we can simply buy parts from there was plenty of design work to do,” Hecht says.
This included creating blinking eyes, moving arms, twitching TV antennas, and turning and tilting heads. The robots were bigger and more powerful than anything Hecht had ever attempted before.
For him, “Heddatron” is about individuals, whether human or robotic, longing to gain control over their lives.
“Perhaps, like Hedda Gabler, you were ‘programmed’ to fulfill a certain narrow role in society and suddenly find yourself trapped by that role,” Hecht says. “In both ‘Hedda Gabler’ and ‘Heddatron,’ the people involved try to gain control of their lives by controlling others. In the end, they finally learn that the only thing in our lives that we truly have control over is ourselves.”
Tickets for “Heddatron” can be reserved at: http://www.steppenwolf.org/boxoffice/productions/index.aspx?id=520.