Audiences must submit to ‘Machinal’

Williamstheatre’s production of Machinal revved its way into the CenterStage last week. The play, an episodic, multi-faceted piece about one woman’s oppression and eventual turn to murder, managed to breathe some life into what some may call a dusty-idea of the world as “factory” through a tight ensemble-cast and pitch-perfect design. Sophie Treadwell’s script in near-parable fashion tells us the somewhat true story of Helen Jones, a woman whose absolute alienation from her surroundings and frustration in life leads her to murder her husband – Lifetime with automatons. Credit goes to the production for making a piece that can sound dated into a fresh and vibrant piece of expressionist theater.

The key to the piece and the life-blood of the machine was the actors who took up the difficult task of having to emulate both humans and the mechanized. The play was propelled by strong lead performances from Lizzie Fox ’12, as Young Woman, also known as Helen Jones, and Evan Maltby ’11, as her husband George H. Jones. Their anti-chemistry echoed the oppressive lull of daily life, contrasted with a poorly-timed affair with a younger “rebel” Richard Roe, played with a charmingly dashing superficiality by Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11.

Fox should be commended for bringing a vital humanity to a role that grates on cloying. She shone in subtle moments when her eyes lit up and inner rage could be seen, as in the cold, directed scream of “I’ll kill you” to her mother; or, in one of my favorite scenes, as she accepts a rose from Roe at the beginning of their affair and bends and cracks it, all with delicate grace. These moments where the line between the role and actor becomes imperceptible were small but essential additions to a character that needs desperately to evolve from the sketch that Treadwell provides.

The piece does not merely rely on the lead actors, but often uses the ensemble to create the allusion to the factory and the exchange-value of all these “workers” who, whether in their places of labor or their moments of leisure, manage to inflict the same mechanized,
organized tone into their characters. It is near-impossible to single out any one example, but one stand-out was the character of Jordan Dallas ’11 as the doctor, symbolizing at once the contradiction of care and violence that encompasses any authority – checking on the loving mother one minute and then forcing her to breastfeed her newborn in the next. These moments of calculated oppression the actors were able to flawlessly execute.

Director Robert Baker-White ’80, department chair, takes his cues right out of the early 20th century expressionist playbook, narrowing down the difference between man and machine by literally having the actors playing office workers wear their machines in the first scene. Many common social relations become mechanized through Treadwell’s too-structured sentences and Baker-White’s use of the vignette to show us the interchangeability of human emotions. In one particularly effective scene, while Young Woman talks to her Mother (Lisa Sloan ’09, who plays a stern but loving mother better than anyone else I know), we have the playful arrest of horny townspeople pittering about. Costume designer Deborah Brothers further highlights their Eli-Whitneyish quality by coloring them in similar shades and patterns. In the blur of lighting one can barely tell one from the other, but the Young Woman is clad in warm colors, further distinguishing her from the mechanical conformity of the world around her.

Set designer David Evans Morris ’96 has solved the riddle of the CenterStage and created a perfect setting for Machinal. Productions in the CenterStage were often limited by the space’s harsh aesthetic that Morris does not decide to fight, adding to where the stage has already given us the allusion of the factory. A huge silo-like cylinder dominates the center of the space, and rather than a modular, traditional seating bank, the audience is located on custom-built seating six feet or higher off the ground, cutting into the stage and also participating in the factory. It’s not that Morris uses these industrial motifs and brings the audience into the fray as a way of turning the CenterStage into a factory – it’s merely Morris using his visual aesthetic to show us with a gentle nudge that it is that the CenterStage already is a factory in a theater’s clothing (to say nothing of the wolf).

Treadwell’s play was revolutionary in its use of sound, and Eric Kang ’09’s design was a perfect counterpart to Morris’s set. Like Morris, Kang chose to use the CenterStage to produce all the sound effects live by having ensemble members play non-traditional instruments like pipes and overturned garbage cans. His most terrifying sound effect, a cross between a piano being sliced open with a sword and a chewed out xylophone, was produced by running a wooden wedge along the spindles of one of the metal stairways. Lighting designer Julie Seitel ’94’s lights also echo some of the theater’s inherent qualities, using metal patterns called gobos to filter the light into grid patterns on the stage floor.

One could call Treadwell’s piece feminist in that it tries to revise the traditional narrative by casting this strong-willed, tortured woman in the main role, highlighting the nearly impossible conditions set out for her. Although Treadwell saves us from the tendency of theater to cast desperate maidens and strong-leading men, she still overly victimizes the Young Woman to the point of near pity, and when the main point of feminine power can be adduced, she almost frustratingly gives half the credit to wild, exotic Roe, equating her “liberation” with an ideal postulated by a male subject no better (dare I say interchangeable?) with George H. Jones himself. One could say we have moved on to better and stronger forms of liberation that require no male-bravado to spark up.

Perhaps the play was too old to be put back onstage without some of the alienation of the audience turning into curious detachment, or perhaps a more deviant choice should have been made in respect to the setting of the play, but these are minor ideological quarrels. Anyone who desires to see an authentic theatrical experience that fulfills all the potential that a space like the ’62 Center offers should attend a performance of Machinal this coming weekend on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.