Saw Machinal last night, real good production. Kudos to the actors and the design team.I had my problems with some choices/the play itself, but it was a worthwhile night of theatre, pretty raregoing in these here parts. Check it out:
We are led into the theater – no, scratch that, we are led out of the theater into the factory. Guided by the arm-signs of the 62 Center authorities into the machine-like interiors, a purple green light where the performers we never see are themselves before impregnating their souls with a role. Then we enter the theater, only we enter to find ourselves part of the factory, everything is part of the factory. Where is the Centerstage? We ask ourselves, but this is the Centerstage, it is all the Centerstage ever wanted to be.
In doing so, set designer David Morris has solved the riddle of the Centerstage and created a perfect setting for an albeit dated proto-feminist expressionistic pseudo-drama (the all too hyphenated Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell). Before, productions in the Centerstage always had to answer to the fact that the theatre itself had more personality than the design. The millions of dollars that went into the theatre became more a centerpiece than the raging artistic mind, trying to contain the monster of brick wire and stark, raving architecture. Morris does not decide to fight, he chooses to critique. Adding to where the stage has already given us the allusion of the factory, he shows modernity’s still all-too strong hold on us. It’s not that Morris uses factory 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 theatre’s clothing (to say nothing of the wolf).
My only regret is that the rest of the production did not take this philosophy to heart. That is not to fault the production itself, it was a marvelously realized work of Expressionism that managed to keep me riveted (if a bit alienated) for the full hour and a half. The riveting aspect I feel was due to both a focused and impressively well-rounded cast, anchored by strong lead performances from Lizzie Fox, as Woman and Evan Maltby, as husband – whose anti-chemistry echoed the oppressive lull of it allTreadwell’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 (as well as a poorly timed affair with a younger ‘rebel’ played with a charmingly dashing superficiality by Nathaniel Basch-Gould) lead her to ‘gasp’ murder her husband. It’s Lifetime with automatons. . Fox should be commended for bringing a vital humanity to a role that grates on cloying. The moments where we see her eyes light up and the inner rage step up, the cold directed scream of “I’ll kill you” to her mother; or, in one of my favorite scenes, straying from her husband accepting a rose from another man she choosed to bend and crack it, all with delicate grace, while still accepting it. I felt the tinge of character snap in that precise moment, a small but vital addition to a character that needs desperately to evolve from her sketch, and Fox does the best she can.
Director Rob Baker-White takes his cues right out of the early 20th century Expressionist playbook, narrowing down the difference between man and machine by literally putting the machines on the actors 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 Woman talks to her Mother (Lisa Sloan, 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 Deb 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.
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. However, though Treadwell saves us from the tendency of theatre to cast desperate maidens and strong-leading men, she still overly victimizes the Woman (to the point of near-patheticism) and when the main point of feminine power can be adduced, she almost frustratingly gives half the credit to this sort of wild-exotic Mexican-tinged fellow. The ‘liberation’ comes from an ideal postulated by a male-subject no better (dare I say interchangeable?) with Maltby’s ‘Man’. One could say we have moved on to better and stronger forms of liberation, those that require no male-bravado to spark up.
Treadwell’s play is revolutionary in terms of sound and Eric Kang’s use of it was a perfect counterpart to Morris’s set. Like Morris, Kang chooses to use the Centerstage for music rather than otherwise. His most terrfifying sound; a cross between a piano being sliced open with a sword and a chewed out xylophone comes from the playing of one of the stair-ways. Light designer Julie Seitel’s lights also bring out the quality of the theatre itself, taking some light from all the way in the top, having the grates of the catwalk reappear as patterns on the stage.
Perhaps the play was too old to be put back onstage without some of the alienation turning into curious detachment, or perhaps a more deviant choice should have been made in respect to the setting of the play (if we are on the subject of the Centerstage perhaps Williams College might have made a better setting than NYC); but these are minor ideological quarrels, anyone who desires to see an authentic theatrical experience – with all the potential that a space like the 62 Center offers, should make their way to Machinal sometime next week.