Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Robert Baker-White
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Love? What does that amount to?"
For Helen A., a Young Woman, the question of love and its effect on her life is not one she will speak of often in the 1928 Expressionist Drama, "Machinal," which is currently on stage at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. This student production with no intermission showcases the talents of the author, director, designers and many of the actors in a brilliant and unusual manner. The production is playing through November 1 in the Center Stage space, a flexible black box space which, in this case, puts the entire audience upstairs, above most of the action of the play. With this sort of a remove, the full force of the expressionist style is given its head. The audience, alienated in space, cannot participate but can only observe. It’s a brilliant choice, presumably a collaborative one between the director Robert Baker-White and the set designer David Evans Morris with perhaps a word or two of encouragement or its opposite from the lighting designer Julie Seitel.
The author, Sophie Treadwell, was writing about a real murder case, one which ended with the first execution of a woman in New York State by electric chair. Treadwell found in the expressionist milieu a form through which to write her very special drama. There are nine episodes, each punctuated with noise, mechanical sound effects and human voices, which lead emotionally into the nine scenes and sometimes underscore the human relationships. This technique, used by Eugene O’Neill in "The Emperor Jones" and by director Rouben Mamoulian in "Porgy" and the film "Love Me Tonight" allows the audience to feel some of the anxiety and the awful environment that encompasses the heroine. What emerges from all of this becomes evident late in Episode I, the inevitability of tragedy. Tragic lives, Treadwell shows us, are not the result of a momentary lapse, but are the end-result of a lifetime of wrong choices, indecisions and mistaken honor.
Helen A works at the Jones Company and is loved by her boss, George J (for Jones). He pursues her against her wishes and marries her against her better judgement and fathers a child on her against her instincts. When she meets and falls in love with a bounder and cad named Richard Roe and then learns his story of escaping kidnappers south-of-the-border through a unique form of murder, her fate is sealed. Unable to escape the boredom of her existence she uses Roe’s methods, finds her freedom for a moment but then is destroyed by her lover and sent to the electric chair to die.
Helen is played by Lizzie Fox who has some trouble getting beyond the one-note writing of the role. She has exquisite moments but this role requires so much subtlety and so much charm that she cannot quite hold the piece together. Fox is at her best in the revulsion scene entitled "Honeymoon" and is equally enthralling in the "Intimate" sequence with Roe. "Maternal" which keeps her on a hospital gurney was painful to watch and from the overhead perspective quite frightening to witness as she prances and dances all over the unstable bed -on-wheels. Her death scene was not as moving as it should have been, but her denying her own mother just prior to it was chilling. Fox has abilities and talents but this was not a role she was ready to undertake.
Likewise the smarminess of her boss/husband/victim George was a bit beyond actor Evan Maltby. Roe, played by Nathaniel Basch-Gould, was a better fit of actor and role. Basch-Gould does well in his two scenes, a role originated on Broadway by a young Clark Gable. His sincerity was believable and his later betrayal through a deposition was nicely played by his disembodied voice.
Lisa Sloan was all right as Mother. Jordan Dallas was out of his depth as both doctor and priest. Adam Stoner was an excellent lawyer for the defense and Lydia Barnett-Mulligan was his equal in the role of prosecutor. In a bizarre juxtaposition scene "Prohibited" in which Helen and Richard meet, Peter Drivas was a fascinating Man who loves Amontillado and Dan Kohane was a surly Boy who’s never been in love.
Treadwell takes her time in this tale. Her scenes span years and Helen never seems to change. Deborah A. Brothers, the costume designer, highlights this by always returning the heroine to the same dress she had on in scene one. Her other costumes were either spot on or fanciful imaginings of what characters might be wearing, perhaps in a musical. The oddness of this, along with the "practical" lighting fixtures provided by Seitel and the factory set, makes for excellent Expressionist theater.
Baker-White (first of four hyphenated names in this company) paints remarkable pictures with the large cast of generally excellent supporting players and his main characters. His choices for this work are often remarkable and will remain memorable for some time to come. His choice of play is adventurous for students, for young actors still struggling with character and not ready for the long silent solo spot which needs experience in playing through emotions. The end-result here is some very out-of-the-ordinary theater, if not extraordinary theater and a hint of what death may be like ("just no breath" is an offered answer) in an Expressionist Hell.
Machinal plays at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College through November 1. For more information, tickets prices and box office call 413-597-2425 or go to their website at http://62center.williams.edu.