Robots aren’t made of cardboard. At least, they aren’t supposed to be. The blueprints drawn up by mad scientists in basements, or the tech team at Google, don’t include the brown, fragile material you can freely acquire from Walmart after 10 p.m. as required materials. Also, robots don’t do ballet – at least not the Terminator or the ghoulish bad guys battling Will Smith in I, Robot.
However, in the inception of .d0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet, at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab starting April 6, cardboard AI are the majority. The minority is a cardboard human, NAVI, who provides the thumping rhythm, or heartbeat, to this technology-populated sentient future world. Pointless Theatre Co.’s original puppet ballet proves a riveting story is more important than scrap metal and digital voices.
“Artificial intelligence is the motherboard of the city, Olive,” composer Navid Azeez says. “It’s Google. It’s Skynet. It’s NAVI and Skynet kicking it in the mainframe room. There are two robots who make up the band. The city is the artificial intelligence’s body, and the last human has been kept alive because of the pulse. This thud keeps the city moving, and they need a human to provide it.”
.d0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet is the result of an 18-month-long collaboration between Azeez, Aaron Biden, Patti Kalil, Alex Leidy and Matt Reckeweg. Pointless Theatre cofounders Kalil and Reckeweg say a story about robots and the future was always on the docket.
“I think it speaks to the idea of how universal the idea of post-human, or end of humanity, is,” Reckeweg says. “It’s a topic that so many mediums and artists have been inspired and compelled by to make something.”
At the top of the show, NAVI controls the pulse, and interacts with his robot neighbors. And over the course of the play, the tide changes. From there, questions of a human’s obsoletion in a world of machines becomes prevalent as his purpose and authority is slowly stripped away.
“It’s an allegory for how authority responds to social change,” Reckeweg says. “At the end, this last human is left with not knowing if there is room for him in this new world.”
Pointless Theatre’s production is in large part inspired by futurist artist Fortunato Depero’s “visual world,” a welcome departure from typical sci-fi trope (think stark imagery and tonal colors erring on borderline grayscale). Depero’s approach to the impending post-human society mirrored the palette of a rainbow.
“He has a series of paintings with robotic landscapes that are both colorful and whimsical, and not what you might expect from a robotic landscape at all,” Reckeweg says. “There’s all these different paintings of these figures, and we know academically that he employed these robots as rudimentary puppets that were used to perform.”
From there, the crew was off to the races in visualizing a world in the same vein of these vibrant mechanical horizons.
“Those were pretty strict limitations, but once we knew that, we could craft the story,” Reckeweg says. “The more we constructed the story, the more we found things that spoke to us as contemporary artists, and as it developed, we lost the emphasis on Depero.”
For Pointless Theatre, the idea of using toys is normal, as the company incorporates multiple mediums (dance, theatre and music) – but always with puppets.
“What makes the toy theatre interesting is how simple it is,” Reckeweg says. “There comes a challenge in having to boil down a big idea into a painted piece of cardboard, and it has made us as artists and storytellers narrow in on what we’re trying to say, and what this moment is about.”
As the scenes came together, the songs formed around them by proxy, Azeez says.
“With Mike Winch, we essentially built all the songs from scratch. I wrote acapella to counts, where we built beats underneath. We created this sort of organic movement with how it was going to go.”
From Daft Punk to a 100-year-old record, and hardware sounds in between, the music was made to represent a world dominated by devices. The duo even ventured to a 70-year-old machine shop in Baltimore, where they flipped the “On” switch for hundreds of appliances, creating drum samples as the devices provided sound.
The movements of the puppets fall back to Reckeweg, who has a background in dance. The play’s title contains the word “ballet” in it, but when I think of the genre, my thoughts are dominated by twirls and balance. I asked him, “How could a cardboard puppet have such grace and fluidity?” He chuckled.
“This show takes the idea of ballet and strips that classical vocabulary away. The puppets are very, very simple. What’s interesting about ballet is that it’s more than just the classical postures. It’s storytelling that brings together visual composition and movement all set deeply to music. And what I like about ballet is that it’s more than just the dance.”
There isn’t a definite on how old this dancing, rapping puppet NAVI is, or whether or not the audience should be rooting for him.
“We kind of see this show as a Rorschach test,” Azeez says. “There’s a sense that [NAVI] is not a good guy, [and he’s] not a bad guy. I would love it if everyone left the room with a different opinion of him.”
As for Pointless Theatre as a whole, the company is simply continuing their mission to make cardboard as rad as possible.
“We’re making original work and dedicating our souls to a theatrical experience,” Reckeweg says. “Sure, I hope people think of puppetry in a new way, but I hope that audience members are [also] pleasantly surprised by how we blend all of these disciplines together.”
.d0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet runs from April 6 to May 6. General admission tickets are $30. Learn more about the play and showtimes at www.pointlesstheatre.com.
Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint: 916 G St. NW, DC; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org