Would sex with a robot be any different from sex with a human? Once the lights are off, how can you really tell? And do those differences even matter, when nothing will overcome loneliness? The Sex With Robots Festival asks some serious questions about intimacy and identity, but don’t worry! While the ideas are treated seriously, the writing is witty, sharp, and frequently hilarious, and the actors bring every bit of humanity to even the most robotic roles.
The festival was engineered by playwrights Natalie Zutter and Danny Bowes (both of whom have contributed extensively to Tor.com) and when they approached Caps Lock Theater playwright/producer Mariah MacCarthy her response was immediate and brief: “OBVIOUSLY.” She brought Caps Lock’s new Producing Artistic Director Leta Tremblay onboard, and soon they had gathered eight short plays and one epic folk ballad to explore the theme. MacCarthy loved “the idea that the writers would shed light on the state of humanity by exploring characters that would project their messy desires onto their mechanical lovers” and each piece looks at a unique angle of the intersection of engineering and romance.
All of the short pieces use their SF conceit to interrogate current culture, and take a hard look at love, loneliness, connection, and sexuality. The shorts each take unique approaches to the theme, and the evening is well curated—the festival’s coordinators create a great balance between topics and style. For instance, Micheline Auger’s “Girlfriend Repair” and Mariah MacCarthy’s “Just Right” are both about finding—or creating—the perfect girlfriend, but the former is as wordy and funny as the latter is harsh and visceral. Getting to see both of these pieces within a few moments of each other just highlight why independent theater in NYC is so amazing—the cast and crew of each play have very clearly poured their hearts and souls and circuitry into this project, and it shows in every scene. I was able to attend the opening night performance, and I have to say that this was probably the most responsive audience I’ve ever been in. Everyone around me gasped, giggled, uncomfortably shifted themselves away from the action—they were clearly invested in these stories.
The evening began with an epic folk ballad from Nat Cassidy—of Nat Cassidy and the Nines—about the forbidden love of man and machine. If you’re hoping the words “love” and “Asimov” are used in a rhyming couplet, well, buddy, you’ve found your song! Honestly that wasn’t something I knew I needed it until it came out of Cassidy’s mouth—now I’m not sure how I lived without it.
“Simon Says,” written by Richard Lovejoy and Eric John Meyer, is a dark piece where a (possible) human subjects a (possible) robot to a series of increasingly depraved commands. This piece sets the tone for the rest of the plays—complex stories that twist in an instant from bright and witty to disturbing. Mac Roers’ “Sasha” begins as a simple piece about a wealthy man buying a customized femmebot, but gradually shifts into a heartbreaking look at desire and solitude. All of the actors in the festival were fantastic, but I do want to pay special attention to Catherine LeFrere as Sasha, who has to switch between six different modes throughout the scene, and was fluid and convincing in each one.
Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Taisetsu Na Hito,” which was inspired by the Minami, was the most disturbing piece of the evening. It was hilarious (a long diatribe about ham loaf was probably the funniest moment of the whole night) but the way the humor clashed with the emotional desolation of the two human characters made it truly vivid and unsettling. “Make Your Bed in Hell” by J. Julian Christopher brought the “robot sex” conceit down to a more intimate level, folding it into a tense story of a family in crisis.
Two Tor.com writers contributed plays. Natalie Zutter’s “A Real Boy” was easily the sweetest work of the evening—with real heart, and great chemistry between human Zora and her robot Robert. Danny Bowes’ piece “My Fantasy Sex Robot Came in the Mail Today” was another story of a SASHA, this one exploring a human’s deepest personal insecurities, rather than the relationship fissures on display in the other piece.
If you like sex, robots, or theater, I would say you should head to the Secret Playhouse this weekend! I would assume that you know this, but just in case: yes there is explicit language, and yes there’s some nudity, and it all works, and it’s great. The Sex with Robots Festival will run from Tuesday, November 5th until Sunday, November 10th at 8pm at The Secret Theatre, 4402 23rd Street, Long Island City.
And speaking of robot sex, have a possibly NSFW Bjork video!