By Connie Shakalis | H-T Reviewer
Friday night, I saw a live performance — in black and white. Even the bouquet of roses was gray. I used to believe that what plays really needed was good plots, direction and acting. Special effects, elaborate costumes and expensive lighting were superfluous. How wrong I was.
“Machinal,” playwright Sophie Treadwell’s masterpiece performed by IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance, and directed by James Nelson, is indeed well acted and directed, and the plot, hauntingly expressionistic, is powerful and pertinent, even these 90 years later. But what everyone seemed to be talking about after the show was Jeremy Smith’s sets, Tony Stoeri’s sound design and Darrian Brimberry’s lights (wait till you see the last five minutes!).
The set consists of white strings making parallel lines at various angles, gracing ceiling, floor and open space. Every element, including Justin Michael Gannaway’s costumes, is black, white or gray. Only during the hospital birth scene do the strings turn color, red. Tightly strung, they relax and sway in one scene only, a love affair.
Throughout the play, as is typical in expressionism, we are startled by sounds: a train, subtle, anxious pounding, riveting, jazz music. Haze billows from upstage, creating not just gloom (as though this play needs more gloom?), but additional gray, contributing to the black-and-white scheme.
Treadwell, a feminist, playwright, actor and renowned journalist (foreign war correspondent in World War I, reporter in World War II, and interviewer of Pancho Villa after the Mexican Revolution), wrote “Machinal” about women’s oppression in society. In an industry dominated by men, especially in 1928, this play by a woman enjoyed a remarkable 91 performances on Broadway.
Two themes are submission and figurative suffocation. “I’m stifling, I’m stifling!” Helen (Abby Lee) tells her controlling husband (Jay C. Hemphill). “Must I always submit?” she cries at the sad finale.
Her character, a kind of everywoman, is naive and vulnerable, has never tasted the sweet life. Instead, she operates an office machine (machinal is French for mechanical), “lives alone with her mother” and supports both on her salary.
But the (semi-) sweet life appears a few years later in the form of a sexy pickup (Joshua M. Smith), arranged by her coworker, a very appealing Ellise Chase. Trouble is, Helen is now married to her old boss and has a little girl with him.
The breath has been sucked out of her by having lived with her clueless mother (Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz), her insensitive husband, a difficult childbirth and unwelcome motherhood. Lee makes a beguiling Helen, and the audience seemed to love her, giving her a standing ovation.
I wish Hemphill, commanding and a little scary, had been more detached and less aggressive as her husband. One of the play’s points is that none of the characters is intrinsically bad; they are just ordinary people doing what people do: looking out for their own interests. OK, ordinary dissatisfied wives don’t smack their boorish, cheated-on hubbies in the temple with a pebble-filled bottle, but Helen has issues. The story itself is a loose translation of the true murder case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, in Queens, New York, in 1927.
Additional highlights are the two lawyers (Felix Merback and Nathaniel Kohlmeier), who adamantly, in their own ways, defend and prosecute Helen. Reid Henry is a convincing older man trying to seduce a teenager, a vignette during the married Helen’s pickup scene in a speakeasy. In keeping with expressionism, Treadwell breaks the one hour and 45 minutes into nine separate episodes. The difference in tone — and content — between numbers one and nine grabs us by the nape of the neck and shakes. Unusual for me, chills rippled over my body after the curtain call. Women and men — both — know the pressure of helplessness, of struggling against the intractable. It comes to terrifying life here.
Ninety progress-driven years have passed since Treadwell wrote this treasure. Although to some it may not seem as though society has changed much, it has, and it is worthwhile to reflect on some of those changes. Yes, our lives are mechanized, they revolve around machines, women and women’s work are still undervalued, but we have made headway.
Helen begins the play working with her stenograph machine, and she closes the play with a different machine.
“What if the machine doesn’t work?” a character asks. (I just got those chills again.)
If You Go
WHAT: “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell, directed by James Nelson.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $10-$20. 812-855-1103, theatre.indiana.edu.