The Greenhouse Theater Center kicks off its first subscription season with a revival of journalist Sophie Treadwell’s visionary Expressionist classic.
If an unsuspecting theatergoer looked at Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and judged simply by its date of origin, 1928, they might think that they were in for an evening of slightly stiff and overexaggerated realism—the kind of play where you can practically see the spurts of dust with every creaking, croaking line that is uttered. They would be wrong. Inspired by the real-life murder trial and execution of Ruth Snyder (an event that also inspired the film Double Indemnity), Machinal is a moody, jagged piece of expressionist drama. Scenes melt into stream-of-consciousness monologues that explode into fragmented vignettes.
The play’s biggest flaw is that its characters sometimes feel more like totems than actual people. Though they all have regular names, they are referred to by depersonalizing titles: Young Woman, Husband, Mother, Lover. It can feel at times like watching big bronze statues that have been strapped to a roller coaster. Their journeys are predestined, never straying from their wooden, rickety track. But as imperfections go, that’s ultimately a pretty minor one. You can see the destination from the moment they leave the station, but that doesn’t mean the ride itself won’t churn your stomach good.
Director Jacob Harvey sets the play in a grey, desolate space—a sort of prison cell (set design by Eleanor Kahn) from which a young stenographer (Heather Chrisler) will unsuccessfully try to escape. First, she tries through marrying her boss (Sean Gallagher), an oblivious but controlling bore of a man whose very touch causes her to squirm. It’s just another kind of imprisonment, one that she argues over bitterly with her mother (Carin Silkaitis), a tough woman, the kind who sees her daughter’s donning of rubber dish gloves as the height of vanity. Several years later, the young woman becomes enamored with another man, a broodily charming expat (Cody Proctor)—the type of fellow whose best story is about how he killed some guys down in Mexico.
From there, Treadwell skips right over the murder itself, revealing what happened through courtroom testimony. Unlike Double Indemnity, this isn’t pulp noir. The violence in which Machinal is interested is the violence of institutions, violence that’s laced throughout systems and norms and beliefs. Treadwell’s script is constantly invoking the claustrophobia of “modern” city dwelling. There are overheard snatches of other conversations, as well as constant entreaties to “close the blinds” because “people could just look right in.” It’s the terror of having nowhere to escape because there is no monster; there’s only life.
The play is riddled with dreamlike moments, brought to life here through the work of movement director Elizabeth Margolius. And although some of the staging doesn’t always make the best use of the space (the opening office scrum, for instance, gets crammed too far upstage), Margolius’s work is the pulsing, persistent backbeat that drives the production forward. She renders the script’s expressionist flourishes down into substance and strikingly evokes the panic and horror of the protagonist’s inner life.
Then again, a great deal of credit also goes to Chrisler, who almost never leaves the stage, and on whose shoulders the entire play rests. (Gallagher and Silkaitis are also wonderful.) The force that she brings to her performance is matched only by the specificity. In a play that so often trades in symbols instead of characters, she brings the needed tragic fury, but carves it into a form that’s so darn human-shaped, you could swear that it wasn’t bronze at all—that it was the real thing.
Greenhouse Theater Center. By Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Jacob Harvey. With Heather Chrisler, Sean Gallagher, Cody Proctor, Carin Silkaitis. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.