Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s canonical work “Hedda Gabler,” a 19th century play about a pregnant woman bored to the point of recklessness by the trappings of society and her marriage, may or may not be a “well-made play” – that is, at least, according to Heddatron’s 10-year old narrator Nugget.
This 2008 reimagining of the classical play centers around the story of Jane (played with searing subtlety by Paris Doherty ’21): a pregnant housewife in Michigan who is snatched from her home by robots and then forced to play the role of Hedda in the machines’ production of the play, their eyes beaming a dangerous red and the phrase “SAY YOUR LINE!” resounding across the stage as they police Jane into performing the role they have cast her in.
Watching “Heddatron” at the Weiss Theater constitutes a veritable sensory assault which makes use of the full technical and spatial capacities of the theater to convey a vision that is simultaneously beautiful, bizarre, absurd, disjunct, laugh-out-loud funny and at times deadly serious.
The play is mapped onto a stage divided into three smaller primary stages: on one side, Jane presides over a living room kingdom constructed of a couch, laundry basket and copy of “Hedda” wearing a robe and UGG slippers. On another, her bumbling husband Rick and machismo brother Cubby desperately try to find a way to get Jane home (and monetize her disappearance), with a “film student” character capturing them in footage that is displayed in real time on multiple screens affixed to the walls surrounding the set.
Crowning this chaos is a section of the set occupied by the strange and ineffectual Henrik Ibsen himself (played with admirable commitment by Kyle Falutko ’22, whose preparation veered into method acting as he grew out impressive mutton chops for the role).
This triptych is further layered and complicated by the shock appearance of a breathtakingly diverse and engaging cast of robots, each one armed by a human counterpart visible to the audience from below their positions on a raised deck. The actors speak through speakers affixed to the robots’ bases to the effect of rendering them surreally invisible, encouraging us to affix actual personality and humanity to all of the machines.
In conjunction with the set’s relocation to a rainforest, the site to which Jane is brought after her abduction, these robots become the key in establishing the sort of hollowed, spectacled industrial jungle that “Heddatron” comes to represent.
The actors playing the robots speak with a child’s stereotypically syncopated, mechanized robotic tonality and the machines they are operating have eyes that alternatively beam, glare or whir at the viewer. Interestingly, however, the bots are soon imbued with a startling commonplace-ness in their narration of euphemisms, jokes and expressions of emotion. They set up some of the performance’s most uncomfortable challenges to its characters’ notions that “We all just live for ourselves”, suggesting that this is not always a possibility.
As one character address another over concerns about robots (like the ones that kidnapped Jane) becoming self-aware, we are urged to wonder, alongside the characters, whether or not “information (can) pass through something forever without leaving a mark.”
As another character comments, when the toaster realizes it is a toaster, for example, and then has to live with the fact that it has wasted the entirety of its existence up to that point toasting; its existence necessitated only as an implement to another being- then perhaps becoming self aware is not worth it.
In another scene, the robots instruct a frazzled Jane/Hedda to “SAY YOUR LINE!” while Nugget discusses how women are no longer subject to a life of chores like in Ibsen’s time, noting, ironically, “Now people keep doing his plays even though women are free”.
Throughout the course of “Heddatron”, we are being both programmed and challenged to meditate on the veracity of such claims, much in the vein of a machine developing a burgeoning consciousness despite itself, or a woman struggling in the face of a life which is devoid of the freedoms such a consciousness is purported to guarantee.