You don’t know what to expect before seeing a production of a 1928 play that’s seldom seen and barely even known by those outside the theater world. After all, there’s usually a reason why a piece is not often revived; buried treasures are not lying around everywhere just for the taking.
With Machinal, Sophie Treadwell’s stage work loosely based on the true-life case of 1920s murderess Ruth Snyder, I can’t say that I exulted over seeing this piece at last. But in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s production (now at the Cook Theatre), there were certainly some intriguing aspects.
The piece, now set in contemporary times, begins with the entire cast walking (almost sleepwalking) to chairs placed before a large screen (both video and audio design are important parts of the production). One young woman (Kim Hausler) has to leave the simulated subway; she can’t take the press of the crowd around her anymore, the noise, the rush. But she’s no better off when she arrives at her workplace, to the derision of her co-workers and the unwelcome advances of her boss (Danny Jones). He’s attracted to her because of her hands initially—ironic since she can’t stand the touch of his—and wants to marry her.
The woman, whom we soon come to know as Helen, rebels against the idea of marrying without love. But her mother (Lindsay Bytof), whom she supports financially without getting much support in return, can’t see anything wrong with that. Her bleak view of life (you get up in the morning, put your clothes on, eat, work, come home and wait to die) is only enforced by what Helen finds all around her. When she does marry and has a child, she again is assaulted by the institutions around her, which do nothing to cure her depression. She, along with others seeking some sort of pleasure in their trapped lives, ends up at a bar where she meets a man (Dane Clark) who offers her at least a glimpse of love. But will that be enough to sustain her?
The plot is probably familiar enough; it’s what Treadwell and director Dmitry Troyanovsky (who scored with a Conservatory production of The Bacchae a while back) do with it that’s more unusual. Helen’s interior monologues are projected close up on the screen (a device that can prove annoying at times); while visual stimulation is otherwise limited, we are bombarded by sound, from phones ringing to computer keyboards clicking to a mix of music from classical to rock. Characters for the most part interact with each other only from a distance; physical contact is rare and brief. And the dialogue is deliberately written and spoken to explore the playwright’s intentions, more than to sound like real-life conversation.
So, sometimes audience members may find themselves almost as frustrated as the characters in the play. That may be intentional, but it does mean that Machinal won’t be for all tastes.
It is a learning experience for the Conservatory cast, though. Jones and Hausler, in particular, succeed in making us feel for their situation, with Hausler especially compelling in her final scenes. For those who want something different in their theater going, Machinal does provide a change of pace. It continues through March 21; call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.