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It's man, woman and machine in a rare staging of 'R.U.R.'

"R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" 

Karel Capek's 1920 play introduced the word "robot" to the world, but productions in the cyber age remain relatively rare. Strangeloop Theatre's take, directed by Brad Gunter, has many moments of sly wit that underscore Capek's all-too-relevant observations on the value (or lack thereof) placed on human labor. But the dark dystopic comedy in the script (translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair and edited by Strangeloop member Maria Burnham) gets lost sometimes in earnest-to-a-fault performances.

Mostly, this lies on the shoulders of Holly Robison's Helena, the young daughter of the elite class who arrives on the island where the late Rossums — father and son — perfected and then monetized, respectively, their mechanical human replicas. Helena represents The Humanity League, an organization dedicated to winning freedom and dignity for the robots. But she gives that up impulsively to marry Harry Domin (James Sparling), the company manager.

The script requires a lot of the character: We have to believe the firebrand wanna-be would turn on a dime to become a lady of leisure in an isolated world, and then again find the gumption for another game-changing move later in the play. But Robison's performance remains emotionally immured and, well, robotic.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the ensemble finds the right mix of sardonic and feckless, the key ingredients making up the brain trust of doctors and engineers behind R.U.R.'s creations. Matthew Lloyd's Dr. Hallemeier sips brandy and whips out raised-eyebrow bon mots with machinelike efficiency, while Rory Jobst's Dr. Gall exudes the single-minded exuberance of a socially awkward science geek.

In one telling interlude, Radius (Michael Wagman), a robot whose defiance presages the coming global rage of the machines, receives an examination from Jobst's Gall. "Has Radius a soul?" Robison's Helena asks plaintively. To which Gall breezily replies "He's got something nasty." Sparling's early air of tweedy pomposity (especially in the introductory docent's lecture on the factory he delivers to his future wife) contrasts nicely with his growing horror at what his life's work has unleashed.

An overlong set change in the first act drains some of the energy, but clever use of a scrim and projections of silhouettes (designed by Glen Anderson) brings a note of stark terror to the later developments. Ultimately, it's not Capek's meditations on the soul of the machine that resonate most strongly; it's his prescient commentary on the disposability of humans. The best worker, as Sparling explains to Helena, isn't the one that is most honest and hardworking. It's the one that is the cheapest. Today, Rossum's Universal Robots would be outsourcing production to Third World sweatshop factories.

Through Oct. 6, Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.;$18 at 773-757-6689 or strangelooptheatre.org

"Warped"

The mutability of perceptions and how they shape our assumptions of truth can provide some great dramatic underpinnings — consider, for example, John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." But there needs to be internal plausibility.

Barbara Lhota's "Warped," now in a world premiere at Stage Left under Jason A. Fleece's direction, draws inspiration from the real story of two Chicago police officers accused in 2011 of picking up a drunken young woman, taking her home and raping her. But too many elements here either fail to pass the sniff test or simply aren't well-defined dramatically. What we're left with are repetitions and variations that become numbing over two acts, rather than enlightening about the nature of power, status and reliability of witnesses and participants. It's "Rashomon" without the style or dramatic stakes that made Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film the go-to analogy for differing versions of the same tale.

Which is a shame, because the actors are certainly not at fault here. Nick Mikula and Mark Pracht as Alex Vanson and Hal Pajak, the squad car buddies implicated on the night in question, establish easy rapport but with an edge, making us wonder just which one will sell out the other as the investigation heats up. Kate Black-Spence as the troubled Hope goes for broke in her out-of-control, but still sly, portrayal of an emotionally reactive and addicted young woman.

The biggest problem is that the two female detectives charged with investigating the case, played by Victoria Caciopoli and Lisa Herceg, have their own ill-defined rivalry. And, boy, does the script make them seem hopelessly inept, despite Herceg's Rossi being called "the Destroyer." (We never really find out the background for this reputation.) Lhota lards their scenes with one "Oh, by the way" bombshell after another, wherein one of the two mentions information that would clearly have been gone over together before they started questioning the witnesses.

"Truth can be strange," one of the characters observes toward the end. Sure. But dramatic truth has to provide enough nuts-and-bolts plausibility that we buy into the shifts. That doesn't happen here, and "Warped" feels misshapen as a result.

Through Oct. 6, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.; $25-$27 at 773-975-8150 or stagelefttheatre.com

onthetown@tribune.com

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