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Arts & Culture

A Robot Star Is Born At Ion Theatre

Monique Gaffney plays Jane in Ion Theatre's production of "Heddatron." The robot Hans stands behind the couch, looming over her.
Angela Carone
Monique Gaffney plays Jane in Ion Theatre's production of "Heddatron." The robot Hans stands behind the couch, looming over her.
A Robot Star Is Born At Ion Theatre
San Diego’s Ion Theater in Hillcrest may be small, but they work big and bravely. This is especially true of their current production. It calls for a 10 member cast, a child actor, video and sound projections, and the biggest challenge of all – five robots.

Ion Theater has turned one of its back rooms into a makeshift robot lab, which I visited on a recent Sunday night.

Sterility and white lab coats must be for well-funded engineering firms, not theaters. Strewn about the room are wires, tools, metal shavings and broken circuit boards. The walls are covered with drawings illustrating the history of robots, compiled by High Tech High student Matthew Alexander, who did the research as part of his internship with Ion.

Alexander's research and designs have been guiding Brendan Cavalier, engineer, and Paul Geantil, physicist and inventor. They are building the five robots starring in Ion's upcoming production of "Heddatron."


Geantil stands over a laptop and wears a t-shirt that reads “I’m Bringing Nerdy Back.” He says they’ve run into some unexpected delays, stemming from the high school robotics competition that took place in San Diego last weekend. "Almost all the parts we needed were purchased and out of stock everywhere we looked," Geantil explains. "So this is like literally taking apart the toaster (it's always the toaster!) to try and make enough robot brains and muscles to get these things running."

I follow Geantil and Cavalier onto the theater's small stage for a demonstration of how Hans, the lead robot, works. Hans was modeled after the robot in the 1927 film “Metropolis,” so he has a metal breastplate (with serious abs) and a head with eyes that light up. Hans is tall - some might say dashing for a robot - and dons a black gentleman's cape.

Cavalier works an Xbox-like remote while Geantil admires Hans' mobility. "You notice the wheels move in strange directions. You can get the robot to move side to side, almost in ballet fashion. He can do pirouettes."

Geantil is kidding, Hans can’t really do a pirouette, though he will have to dance (more on that later). Hans can move up to 20 miles per hour, which Geantil says will be useful in the future. "When it’s all done, I’m going to take him back and have him chase my roommates around."

Hans has your run-of-the-mill robot voice, which the male cast members imitate multiple times during rehearsal. I also noticed it was the men who flocked to the robot remotes; the women seemed disinterested. It could have been exhaustion. My visit came after their dinner break and during the first tech rehearsal. As I sat in the front row observing, I kept thinking, "There are tech rehearsals and then there are tech rehearsals. This one's a doozy."


"Heddatron" is a tough play to describe. It's about a depressed Michigan housewife named Jane, who’s reading the Henrik Ibsen play “Hedda Gabler.” Claudio Raygoza, Ion's founder and "Heddatron's" director, lays out more of the plot, with a straight face. "And the next thing we know (Jane’s) been abducted by sentient robots and she’s dragged to the Ecuadorian rain forest and forced to perform this play in the jungle." If you're incredulous, just wait, there's more.

Inhabiting a separate timeline on the stage is Henrik Ibsen himself, battling wits with his arch-rival, playwright August Strindberg. There's also Jane's daughter, who gives a book report about Ibsen throughout the play, and does a cute dance number to reggae rapper Shaggy.

Elizabeth Meriwether wrote "Heddatron" as a kind of absurdist mash-up of science-fiction, history, satire and domestic drama. (Strangely, she also wrote the screenplay for the rom-com "No Strings Attached," starring Ashton Kutcher. Apparently she likes writing for robot actors!)

The absurd nature of the play is part of what drew Raygoza to it. "The storyline is really wacky. I mean you have everything from robots on stage to video projections to 80s pop songs and dance breaks."

Ion has won a lot of critical acclaim for staging bold work. "Heddatron" is one of the most technically ambitious plays they’ve ever done, a challenge that also appealed to Raygoza.

Early on, the creative team explored what would happen if one of the robots broke down during a live performance. Monique Gaffney plays Jane and has already imagined the worst: "I might have to physically move one. I might just have to roll him along and maybe even say his lines. I really hope that doesn’t happen, but you never know."

Raygoza is confident his actors can handle anything. "As live actors, we have the ability to take any situation that comes and wrap ourselves around it artistically, stylistically. We stay in the moment and we stay true to what’s happening."

The budget for "Heddatron" is $16,000, which isn’t much. Everyone chips in and takes on multiple duties. When the actors are off stage, they operate the robots. Raygoza is directing, but he also designed the sound. Cavalier and Geantil are donating a lot of robot-building labor.

Heddatron is full of surprises. Maybe none more surprising than the unearthing of a song many of us probably wish was buried forever. I hate to mention its name, knowing it will lodge in your brain for the rest of the day. But, alas, I must, as it's the source of an elaborate dance number, which has the entire cast, including the robots, dancing and belting out the words. Here it goes: "Total Eclipse of the Heart." (Sorry!)

The thing is, "Heddatron" may have what it takes to redeem this song: a joyous, committed cast and dancing robots.

The opening of "Heddatron" has been pushed back one week due to those fussy robots. The official opening is now March 17.