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Thursday December 2nd

Operatic puppets prove robots can feel the love

Donovan Zimmerman shows off one of the robot puppet used in the PPI’s new show. DTH/Benn Wineka
Buy Photos Donovan Zimmerman shows off one of the robot puppet used in the PPI’s new show. DTH/Benn Wineka

The word robot derives from the Czech robota, meaning drudgery and compulsory slave labor. It is now defined as an oft-fictional machine that can perform complex actions but lacks the capacity for human emotions.

If this is true, then can someone tell me why the hell dancing automatons are recounting an ancient story of love and sacrifice over at the ArtsCenter?

“It’s a new telling of a story of heart and passion, just using the vehicle of robots,” explains Donovan Zimmerman, co-founder of Saxapahaw’s Paperhand Puppet Intervention.

See the Robots

Time: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Location: The ArtsCenter
300-G E. Main St., Carrboro

Zimmerman and PPI have been putting on elaborate productions in the area for more than a decade. PPI’s stage show more often focuses on organic and natural motifs such as insects or memory.

But when Jimmy Magoo approached Zimmerman with the score for what would become “Love and Robots: A Puppet Rock Opera in 0s & 1s,” he was on board.

“We’re always up for a challenge, and people that know Paperhand will see a lot of similarities. We’re using a lot of the same themes, like, there’s still a goddess,” says self-professed goddess worshiper Zimmerman as he sits in front of the modular set of shadow boxes and faux electronics used in the show.

Narrated by The Preacher, a spiritual leader from the future that resembles a metallic Olmec from “Legends of the Hidden Temple” but preaches like a revivalist, “L&R” chronicles the existence of The Messenger, whose trials and tribulations mimic real life.

Throughout the show, the man-sized puppet played by Zimmerman has to deal with interrogation robots and megacorporations, not to mention a war.

“Most of the people involved with the program have some background in political activism, which shows through in the production,” Zimmerman says. “Our robots are out there searching for peace and a loving revolution.”

Although he was never a robot geek before the show, Zimmerman says the more he researched the history of robots, the more it piqued his interest.

Besides the details he could include on the set and puppets for an added “ethos,” Zimmerman became interested in the development of an “ethical slave class” by humans.

“There’s a real push in humans to have a mastery of their surroundings,” Zimmerman said. “Humans will always play at being the creator trying to reach that penultimate achievement of creating a class like robots.”

This almost sounds funny coming from a man who makes puppets out of old vacuums. But PPI’s creations — like the caretaker and artist whose robotic paintbrush hand does live portraits during each show — are embodiments of an ideal human sentiment.

The challenge wasn’t to get the heartless characters onstage to emit emotions but rather to have the audience connect with an imaginary class of sub-humans.

And Zimmerman and Magoo hope to do just that, combining “cool visuals and kickass music into an hour-and-ten-minute sci-fi romp.”

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