The important thing, as the years pile up, is to keep hold of the sense of play: doing things that are free yet passionately absorbing, and riding that balance between frivolity and utter seriousness. Children are aces at this, of course, but there's no reason to let them bogart all the fun. Walking Shadow's Robots vs. Fake Robots satisfies the need for play on all sorts of levels: It's ridiculously engaging, arch, sexy, and makes fun of itself before you can. It's also the rare show that you wish would go on for, say, another hour.
With a spurt of recorded techno noodling, our introduction to the year 6000 comes via the American History of the World Players, three robots named Nintendo 64 (Ryan Lindberg), Shoe Horn (Ariel Dumas), and Morse Code (Matt Rein). They proceed to inform us of our future, in which humanity's numbers have severely dwindled and, more distressingly, robots have assumed the pinnacle of sexual desirability. Worse still, our mechanical carnal betters will not only regard us as smelly undesirables, they will eviscerate us whenever the whim strikes.
David Largman Murray's script quickly makes the case that what the theater needs today is a sci-fi sex satire with restrained allegorical undertones. Our three players, while professing their sexual godliness, are paradoxically preoccupied with 20th-century human culture, from Madonna to JFK. And they get it all wrong, apparently unable to grasp the nuances of our pop world.
That doesn't disturb the human Joe (John Catron) in the slightest, though; he's always looking on as the robots cavort, positively slack-jawed with envy and desire, and increasingly uninterested in his human squeeze, Sammie (Lindsay Marcy), who is game enough to sport a little scrap metal to stoke Joe's desires. Joe, though, isn't content with a bit of kink (Catron gives a starkly earnest performance, as opposed to the robots' posturing, lending vital contrast and giving us just enough grounding).
He seeks out the recluse robot Kneepad (Nathan Suprenant), to whom we are introduced by his bizarre performance of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" Kneepad, it turns out, in addition to being homicidally Byronic, can remove odor from a human body, giving that person a shot at passing for a robot. Of course Joe can't help himself, and he transforms his look for too-cool robot society by dressing up in gear that would have blended seamlessly with a troupe of backup dancers from a mid-period Duran Duran tour of Australia. Soon enough he's trying to keep up with Dumas's hilarious choreography, a high-energy synthesis of MTV and soft-core porn that reveals the mechanical soul to be off-kilter, lewd, and oddly intriguing.
Selling out comes at a cost, though. In addition to spurning Sammie, Joe learns the secret of the fetching robot War Propaganda (Zoe Benston), as well as the rot in the machine that drives the mechanical prostitute Garlic Press (Jennifer J. Phillips). He's eventually called upon to make some stark choices, and promptly steers things in the direction of tragedy.
Director Steve Moulds's production makes inventive use of the People's Center space, using its balconies and entries to confound the room's usual air of claustrophobia. Combined with knowingly garish costumes, and a cast that palpably plays to its strengths, this show bristles with excitement and a weird tinge of danger. It's play, in the best sense of the word. We end up with glancing meditations on morality, obsolescence, superiority, and disgust—the yin/yang of youth and growing up, the eternal, glittering diamond of desire, the excitement of being alive, and the necessary decay at the heart of things.
Play is fun, and play is also deadly serious, more real than real. It's not often that you come across a show that reflects this slippery but essential truth. Here is one.