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Script Reading Roundup: Čapek, Christie, Yee

Brooke Ishibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui, Raymond Lee, and Abraham Kim in Lauren Yee’s  Cambodian Rock Band  at South Coast Rep in spring 2018. Photo by Tania Thompson.

Brooke Ishibashi, Joe Ngo, Jane Lui, Raymond Lee, and Abraham Kim in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at South Coast Rep in spring 2018. Photo by Tania Thompson.

My Script Reading Roundup posts are compilations of reviews of plays I’ve read (but have not usually seen staged). In this edition: robots, rock ‘n’ roll, and multiple murders!

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)R.U.R. by Karel Čapek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

R.U.R. is one of the most influential works of science fiction of all time. Not only did it introduce the word “robot” to the world (Karel Čapek’s brother Josef Čapek derived it from an old Czech word meaning something like “serfdom”), it also discusses pretty much all of the issues that would become central to a century of robot-related fiction. How would mass-produced robotic labor change human society? What happens when the robots realize they are stronger than humans, and try to rebel? What is the nature of humanity, and can a robot ever hope to gain a soul?

Indeed, I find it hilarious that this play was written in 1920 but feels like a modern-day blockbuster. At the climax, a few hardy survivors—a soft-hearted, foolish woman and six Men of Science who are all a little in love with her—barricade themselves in a room and debate what to do about the approaching robot army. They consider their own responsibility for the situation, try to find ways of bargaining with the robots, and gradually come to realize that they may be the only humans left alive on earth. And then, when the robots attack, the humans go out guns blazing. But don’t worry: just as Hollywood demands, there’s an epilogue that provides a thread of hope, ending with an inspirational speech…

Because R.U.R. was the template for so many subsequent robot stories, it can come off as dated or clichéd—I doubt many modern theater companies will want to stage it. (For an alternative, they should consider Universal Robots, Mac Rogers's smart riff on Čapek’s play.) But, in the wake of an industrial revolution and a devastating world war, Čapek hit upon a concept that has resonated with people for nearly a century. Humans have a remarkable love for imagining our destruction at the hands of our creations.

The Mousetrap and Other PlaysThe Mousetrap and Other Plays by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This volume contains three of the most famous stage thrillers of all time – Ten Little Indians, The Mousetrap, and Witness for the Prosecution – as well as some lesser-known Christie plays.

As the longest-running West End play, The Mousetrap has a permanent place in theater history and a lot of hype built up around it. While the twist is not that audacious, perhaps another explanation for its success is that it contains a lot of weird, eccentric characters that are fun for both audiences and actors. (There’s also a nice young couple whom the audience can identify with.)

By comparison, Ten Little Indians and Witness for the Prosecution both have plots that take refuge in audacity. Is it really likely that a murderer could lure ten people to an isolated island and kill them one by one ( Ten Little Indians) or that the multiple layers of deception at the heart of Witness could succeed? No, but the sheer outlandishness is quite thrilling and suspenseful.

The Hollow and Towards Zero share very similar set-ups and premises: a bunch of upper-class English people are assembled for a country-house weekend, there’s a backstory involving past romantic entanglements, there’s a murder, there are some red herrings and a twist, justice is served. Honestly, these plays feel pretty interchangeable, and like Christie could have written them in her sleep.

Go Back for Murder has a similar “murder at a country house” premise, but is more interesting from a theatrical standpoint. It requires the actors to play versions of their characters at younger and older ages, as a young woman seeks the truth about the poisoning death of her father sixteen years ago.

Appointment With Death gains interest from its “exotic” setting of Jerusalem and Petra, and its focus on parent/child/sibling relationships instead of romantic complications. However, the stereotyped depiction of the Middle Eastern characters would make it hard to stage today.

Verdict is a romantic melodrama, rather than a whodunit – the murder takes place onstage, with no ambiguity as to the culprit. Instead, the focus is on moral and ethical considerations. A handsome, idealistic German philosophy professor (an old-fashioned character archetype that I am quite fond of) must reevaluate some of his lofty principles after a murder occurs in his household. Although there’s a lot of hokum here, it’s kind of nice to see Christie examine the ethical dimensions of taking a human life, rather than just treating murder as an excuse for clever plotting.

Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band focuses on a moment in history that’s probably unfamiliar to most Americans: the Cambodian genocide of the late ‘70s, as seen through the eyes of a Phnom Penh garage-rock band whom the Khmer Rouge regime persecutes as Westernized intellectuals. The actors play and sing this awesome music live onstage (also check out Yee’s Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/8m03162...), which should provide a joyful counterbalance to a story that is, after all, about some of the worst cruelties that humans have inflicted on one another. The role of Duch is a great opportunity for an Asian actor to play a flamboyant, Roy Cohn-type villain. And we get a wonderfully complex portrait of the central character, Chum: from cocky musician to frightened prisoner to stubborn immigrant dad.

I’m just not sure about the frame story, which involves a young Cambodian-American woman working to bring Khmer Rouge criminals to justice and learning the true story of how her father (Chum) survived the genocide. It’s pretty clear that Yee has included this frame to help provide exposition and ease American audiences into the play. But it’s kind of a clichéd setup, and the young woman’s problems seem inconsequential in comparison to the literally life-and-death stakes of her father’s story.