Book reports: tedious, baffling, the bane of many a young child's academic career. But in the hands of Nugget, a "freakishly brilliant" 10-year-old girl, a book report on Henrik Ibsen morphs into a phantasmagoria of '80s music, documentary filmmaking, machine guns and rescue missions. That is, after a group of vigilante robots kidnap her mother, Jane, and escape to a rainforest in Ecuador, where they force Jane to perform the lead in Ibsen's classic, "Hedda Gabler."
Admittedly, the plot line for "Heddatron" by playwright Elizabeth Meriwether, opening tonight at Salvage Vanguard Theater and running through March 5, may sound a bit bizarre at first.
That's because it is.
Despite the plot's loose basis in "Hedda Gabler," familiarity with the classic will get you only so far. However, in one of those strange twists of fate, Salvage Vanguard's production of "Heddatron" is running almost concurrently with Palindrome Theatre's production of the original (Feb. 18 to March 13 at the Blue Theatre). So if you want to brush up on your Ibsen, you can.
If not, here are the basics: A woman feels trapped in her house and her marriage, discovers she's pregnant but isn't the mothering type, and owns a pair of pistols with which she likes to play.
Meriweather takes this basic plot and twists it nearly beyond recognition then adds a cast list calling for five fully functional robots (not just guys dressed up in cardboard), a monkey and a lot of video projectors. But as director Dustin Wills says about his play selection process, "If it's easy, why do it?"
Brought in to direct SVT's spring production, Wills wanted a play that would fire up the talented design team. "Heddatron" satisfies both SVT's penchant for modern, irreverent and technologically advanced productions as well as Wills' own preference for more classical pieces and tragic female figures.
With the University of Texas' IEEE Robotics & Automation Society building a band of remote-controlled robots, projection genius Lee Webster coordinating five separate projectors (including smoke and mirrors), and with Buzz Moran orchestrating a series of speakers that will modulate actors' voices throughout the set, "Heddatron" is bound to be a technological marvel.
Light designer Natalie George is equipping the robots with LED lights, and Wills himself has constructed the bodies out of found objects. The robots' presence in the play begs the question of what it means to be alive and what to do with a body built for the sake of someone else.
Shifting back and forth between time, space and central focus, "Heddatron" follows the stories of three main characters. While Nugget's narration seems to drive the plot, at times Ibsen himself takes center stage, muttonchops and all. At others, Nugget's mother is the focus — a discontent and pregnant Michigan housewife with a fondness for firearms.
Although it's entirely possible that the plot twists and specious history lessons are simply figments of Nugget's imagination, "Heddatron" is a sensory overload of technology and tragedy, where the main characters are unsympathetic but captivating. It toys with the idea of a child's imagination. In a world infused with modern technology and book reports about Ibsen, what story would a child invent if her mother disappeared?
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays through March 5
Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road
Cost: $15 (Thursdays pay-what-you-can)