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Meet the robot actor starring in a play inspired by Kafka

Up-and-coming android performer Repliee S1 stars alongside well-known French actors in a piece based on Franz Kafka's absurdist classic "The Metamorphosis."

French actors Irene Jacob and Jerome Kircher rehearse with android co-star Repliee S1, created by Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

In Franz Kafka's novella "The Metamorphosis," Gregor Samsa famously wakes to discover he's been transformed into a giant insect. In a decidedly modern theatrical take on the surreal story, Samsa wakes to find he's a robot. A gangly, metallic, white-faced robot.

And who better to play Samsa-as-android in the new Japanese-French production than an actual bot? That robot, stage newcomer Repliee S1, stars in "La Metamorphose Version Androide," which played in Yokohama, Japan, earlier this month and will run at the Autumn Festival in Normandy, France, in November.

"One morning in the near future, Gregor Samsa wakes up as an android, " reads a description of the play. "Gregor's father (Jerome Kircher), his mother (Irene Jacob) and younger sister (Laetitia Spigarelli), after a period of doubt and caution, will strain to tame their fears and questions facing the new state of Gregor."

While some futurists would no doubt view the chance to experience life as a robot as a welcome adventure, Kafka's 1915 "The Metaphorphosis" tackles deep questions about identity, human connection and otherness.

"When people see a robot, like in an exhibition, you can tell people are not moved by it," Japanese playwright and director Oriza Hirata says in the Agence France-Presse video below. "I wanted to create a situation in which a robot could move an audience, and that's how we came up with the idea of this project."

Hirata worked with Hiroshi Ishiguro -- the famed Osaka University robotics professor behind clonebots, android newscasters and other incredibly lifelike machines -- to fashion the lead actor, which can smile, laugh and deliver lines in a voice that can safely, and literally, be described as robotic.

After observing the robot's performance in rehearsal, Hirata sometimes tweaked the text, and sometimes asked Ishiguro to adjust the robot's programming based on the writing. The play, in French with Japanese subtitles, runs 90 minutes.

The production is part of a larger experimental effort by Hirata and Ishiguro, the Robot Theater Project, to explore the use of robots in performance. They have already staged five original plays featuring robots, including " I, Worker," which focuses on a couple that owns two housekeeping robots, one of which loses its motivation to work. The 3-foot-tall Wakamaru domestic robot, which is designed in the shape of a human, appeared in that production.

Robot performers have moved beyond the theater as well, to appear as stand-up comics and dancers, even pole dancers.

Reflecting in some way that strange sphere of robot-human interaction known as the uncanny valley, French actress Irene Jacob, who plays Samsa's mother in "La Metamorphose Version Androide," says acting alongside her onstage son proved eerie at times.

"Sometimes you feel that maybe, oh, it's maybe more than a robot, and sometimes you think, no, it's definitely a robot," she says in the AFP video. Jacob has won numerous awards, including best actress at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival for her role in "The Double Life of Veronique." That means Repliee S1 is making its stage debut with a famous actress. I know several thespians who would be jealous.

(Via Engadget)