Thursday, October 6, 2011

Machinal: Life, Love, & Murder in the Era of Machines

As an undergraduate, I took three English courses specifically studying and analyzing literary works meant for the stage (well, technically five courses if you include those two semesters of Shakespeare but for the purposes of this post, we won’t count those!). Those three courses covered American writers, women writers, and 20th century writers. Only one playwright that we studied fit in all three categories. That playwright was Sophie Treadwell, and her play Machinal was required reading in all three courses. And while any normal college student (and myself under different circumstances) would have read Machinal once and then go on memory for the other two courses, I know I read the play at least twice, maybe even all three times. That’s how much I loved this play. I even went on to write my mid-term essay for one of those classes on Machinal.

In all my readings of the play, I kept trying to imagine how this wonderful work would be if presented as it was meant to be - not simply read off the page but seen and heard with a full cast, scenery, and most importantly, the right sound effects. I had never thought I would see it live, being as it is a relatively obscure play. And while it was revived briefly in the 1990s, it hasn’t seen the light of day much since its first premiere on Broadway in 1928.

So you could imagine my excitement when an otherwise ordinary brochure listing the upcoming productions of the Rutgers student theater had Machinal on the list. I tried to order tickets before they even went on sale. Yeah, that’s how excited I was.

Publicity still for Rutgers' Mason Gross performance of Machinal

After tickets actually went on sale and I procured a pair for my mother and I, I filled the time in between the ordering and the actual play-going by searching through my pile of old schoolwork (because I never throw anything out) to find my worn photocopied version of the play. I eventually found it (complete with handwritten notes in the margin taken down over three separate lectures on the play) and re-read it in one sitting a few days before going to see the play.

Having just read the play then, I can assure you that the Rutgers’s production was true to the play to the word, excepting one point that diverges from the written script – the Rutgers’s production included a bit more to the ending to make it even more chilling. 

I will admit that before going into the play I had some fears as to how the students would present it. I’ve been to my fair share of modernized Shakespeare plays to know that sometimes productions take bizarre twists on older plays. But as soon as I walked into the theater, I heard some jaunty period music and saw a couple of displays of the research that went into the costumes and props for the play. There was undoubtedly a fair amount of research done on the actors’ parts as well, as they got down the accent, rhythm, and pace of fast-talking 1930s movie characters when the moment called for it.

Another thing that let me know right away that this production would be exactly what I was hoping for was the set. The theater where Machinal is being played is relatively small and doesn’t have an actual stage, just a clear floor area. Throughout the play, the cast would wheel on the necessary props to the floor, including desks, a bed, tables and chairs, etc. But that wasn’t what I first saw. Instead, the audience is immediately faced with a back wall made up of a chain-link door/window combo with a silhouetted skyline across it --behind which is a massive cog and wheel display. During scene changes these would turn and whir accompanied by an ominous and menacing soundtrack. It could be actually frightening at times and was an awesome addition to the play’s ambiance. 

Speaking of the play’s ambiance, this play calls for lots of ambient noise – from typewriters clanging in an office to children playing outside. As Treadwell herself explains in the stage directions at the beginning of the play, “The hope is to create a stage production that will have ‘style’ … In the dialogue of these scenes there is the attempt to catch the rhythm of our common city speech, its brassy sound, its trick of repetition, etc. Then there is, also, the use of many different sounds chosen primarily for their inherent emotional effect (steel riveting, a priest chanting, a Negro singing, jazz band, etc.), but contributing also to the creation of a background, an atmosphere.” I think the Rutgers’s production could have let the background noises extend for a little longer in some scenes, but overall I was impressed by the way they included in all the sound effects, which did indeed have an emotional effect. Finally seeing this play in person solidified my love of Treadwell’s expressionistic play with its interest in the world outside of just the play’s dialogue. 

But the dialogue itself was also gripping. When reading the play to one’s self, there’s a tendency to just read the words all in one go without pause or stop, so right there was another benefit of seeing Machinal acted live. The actors breathed life into the words by using emphasis, inflection, a wink and a nudge, and all the other little things that give added meaning to speech. This was particularly useful in the protagonist Helen’s soliloquies, full of her short, rushed speech with hardly a coherent sentence within a long paragraph. The actor portraying her perfectly gave the audience the empathy her character cries out for, as who doesn’t feel for the protagonist and her desire to just rest? Or at least sometimes share her feeling of being just another cog in a wheel? Of course, she’s a little insane too but that’s another story…and one that the actor also captured.

Indeed, all of the actors did phenomenal jobs, especially given that all were playing multiple roles. And while having the same actor play more than one role might have the potential for confusion, this was well done on the whole to avoid that. (There was one scene where it was perhaps a bit unclear that the one actor was now playing a different role, but hopefully the audience who hadn’t already read the play numerous times could re-adjust and figure out that he was now in a new role.)

Overall, this play was so good that I would honestly consider seeing it again before the production closes on Saturday. And I’m definitely recommending that anyone in the area run, not walk, to go see it before it’s over.

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