Weehawken’s Hudson Theatre Works has challenged its audiences before; two years ago, for instance, the company cast a woman as Hamlet. But Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist masterpiece “Machinal,” which runs through Nov. 6, may mark its most ambitious production to date.
I’m happy to report that the company, under house director Frank Licato, serves this difficult material well. “Machinal,” first produced just eight years after women received the right to vote, remains a feminist manifesto to this day. Typical of the expressionist movement of the early 20th Century, it uses the metaphor of the machine to symbolize how ordinary people — in this case, an unnamed young woman we later learn is Helen — can be inexorably ground up in the cogs of society like a grain of wheat in a mill.
Treadwell was a remarkable woman, not just an actor and playwright but also an investigative journalist and crusader who wrote about social ills such as homelessness, prostitution, unequal pay, unfair working conditions and immigration. She based “Machinal” on the true story of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted of murdering her husband and executed in the electric chair. But that’s almost a red herring; “Machinal” has none of the tawdry sensationalism of true-crime narratives. It is the story of a woman who lived every day doing what was expected of her, and paid for her one moment of freedom with her life.
In the 1920s, some playwrights were transforming theater into an experience as natural and life-like as possible, but the expressionists — inspired by an earlier movement in Germany — sought to make audience members keenly aware they were watching a play. Expressionism sought to reveal hidden and repressed emotions and often criticized institutions such as the government, big business and the military. Dialogue tended to be stylized, unnatural, even mechanical. All those elements play out in “Machinal.”
As the story begins, Helen (Amanda Marie Evans) arrives late to work at her job as a stenographer. The staccato and repetitive vocal outbursts of the office make the place as noisy and unpleasant as a boiler factory. The young woman, who lives at home with a bullying harridan of a mother, remains stoically phelgmatic — except for moments when she explodes into screams.
Many expressionist playwrights eschewed traditional acts; Treadwell divided “Machinal” into nine separate episodes, each set in a different place and time (Business, Home, Honeymoon, Maternal, etc.). This device has been compared to the Catholic Stations of the Cross.
Six actors play various roles as we watch Helen as she enters into a loveless marriage with her boss, gives birth to a baby she doesn’t want, has an ill-advised affair, and is put on trial for the murder of her husband (a crime we do not see). As her story falls apart on the witness stand, she confesses, and the last episode depicts her execution.
This story could have happened anywhere, at any time, to anyone, and the set design emphasizes that universality by making us imagine props like typewriters or adding machines. The theater’s open stage — abetted by a few pieces of furniture and rear wall projections — transports us from a busy office to a shabby kitchen to a courtroom. Kudos to production manager/set designer Gregory Erbach for once again making the most of the company’s humble home in the abandoned Wilson School’s auditorium.
Evans perfectly embodies the Everywoman protagonist, a mass of twitchy repression as she fends off her amorous, much older boss or tries to deal with her hectoring mother. Ivan Goris brings a subtle Southern accent to a variety of roles, but shines as the wily prosecutor who unravels Helen’s lies and forces her confession.
As Helen’s husband, Kevin Cristaldi plays his role with nuance. The man may act inappropriate in the office, but he is not overtly lecherous. His mannerism and speech are formal and he’s much older, but he never comes across as cruel or unkind. Mostly he seems like a man who doesn’t have a clue about women (something also true about Helen’s doctor, who can’t grasp the idea of postpartum depression). Yes, the audience sympathizes with Helen, but her husband never comes across like someone who deserves to be murdered, and that makes Helen far less sympathetic than she might have been if he had been played as more of a monster.
Life, the playwright is telling us, is complicated.
Speaking of monsters, Joanne Hoersch captures Helen’s awful mother perfectly, bullying and denigrating her daughter even though Helen’s job supports them both. She’s less memorable as a bartender and judge, although those roles were written to be nondescript. Other cast members suffer the same fate, walking through roles such as Stenographer, Nurse, Reporter and Priest as if they were part of the scenery.
B.C. Miller — Hudson Theatre Works’ female Hamlet in 2020 — does make an impression as Helen’s cartoonish defense attorney (complete with penciled-on mustache), played broadly to epitomize the impotence of the legal system.
Scott Cagney plays the Young Man who seduces Helen and plants the seed of freedom in her head, and he handles his part suavely and credibly. But if I have one bone to pick with the Hudson Theatre Company, it’s casting. The Young Man is supposed to be a handsome “curly-haired youth” whom Helen has dreamed of since girlhood. (For example, a young Clark Gable played the role in the original Broadway production.) The shirtless Cagney in the play’s bedroom scene resembles Tony Soprano more than anyone’s idea of Prince Charming; nor would he be considered a Young Man. Casting good actors in the wrong roles was a big problem in HTW’s recent production of “Bunnies,” and Cagney is an odd fit here.
That quibble aside, this “Machinal” brings a seldom-seen classic drama to life with panache, wit and pace. It links past and present in a way that Treadwell never could have imagined in 1928. But sadly, the causes she railed about then — inequality, poverty, sexism — remain very much a part of our landscape today.
“Machinal” runs Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Nov. 6. at the Wilson School in Weehawken. Hudson Theatre Works will also present a Halloween One-Acts Festival, Oct. 30-31 at 7 p.m. Visit hudsontheatreworks.org.
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