Libby Matthews (far left) is a winsome robot-slayer at WET.

Opening Nights: RoboPop!

Humans battle robots to a disco beat.

Who but WET would challenge themselves, or their audience, with something as devilishly dark, low-tech, and delicious as this?

More live-action music video than drama or musical, RoboPop! was created by the ensemble, and it further cements WET’s reputation in the top tier of theater artists working in the city today. There’s just enough story line to sustain an hour-long run time, but the real treat here is witnessing the group’s promised “kaleidoscope” of influences parade by and trying to sort them out individually as they pass. You’ll see Japanime references; flash back to Max Headroom; have pieces of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation pulse in your head; and wonder how the costumers built those terrific robo-headpieces that trigger memories of the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica and The Rocketeer all at once.

In plot, RoboPop! involves a reality only tangentially related to our own, where humans (who are given to spontaneous dance and a preternatural obsession with hand-held music players) dwell in uneasy coexistence with the equally funk-footed robots, who in turn recall both Daft Punk and JabbaWockeeZ, the masked first-season winners of America’s Best Dance Crew.

The show hits its stride when one of the robots (none of the cast members is identified by a character name, and the robot army never reveals their faces) falls for one of the humans in a Close Encounters connection made through music. That leads to a rapid deterioration in relations between men and the mechanicals, which soon erupts into outright war. In a flash, the Head-of-the-Class-meets-Fame humans trade in their multicolored street wear for jumpsuits and helmets. Look! It’s Devo with nightsticks!! And who should be their last recruit? The winsome lass whose heart belongs to a robot, who turns out to be the deadliest Robot fighter of them all—shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Launching the humans into battle is a sort of kabuki/bride of Frankenstein Headmistress (Hannah Victoria Franklin, last seen in WET’s Hunter Gatherers), sporting a glassy-eyed stare and a pair of killer black pumps. Her gown will leave you speechless. Much dancing and stage fighting ensue, all set to assorted musical interludes that include mashups of Elvis and the Carpenters. That’s followed by a suitably apocalyptic ending and the coolest curtain call ever.

Those with sensitive hearing will want to bring earplugs, because this is a hella loud show. Not a word is spoken by the performers, so it’s uninterrupted space-age disco from start to finish, and sound designer Brendan Hogan’s soundtrack is so atmospheric and organic that it would probably fly off the shelves at Sonic Boom.

RoboPop! also provides another winning example of the way WET makes every 25 cents spent look like a dollar onstage. Multimedia elements make room for the obligatory disco ball and some imaginative intercuts of original and stock video by Wes Hurley. The set and lighting designs (by Andrea Bryn Bush and Amiya Brown, respectively) are anything but expensive, but strike precisely the right tone to recall those wonderfully cheap videos from the dawn of MTV. Directors Heidi Ganser and Ben Zamora obviously had a hand in editing this frolic down to a manageable and coherent single act, and they tether the show tightly enough to its own reality to keep it from whirling off into space. 

Sixty minutes is all you’ll spend in your seat, but you’ll take another hour and a half to talk about what it all means, where it all came from, and why RoboPop! is a cultural Rorschach test well worth taking.

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