A dark and compelling adaptation of one of the greatest Expressionist theater pieces of the 20th century, “Machinal” by Sophie Treadwell, opened Tuesday at the Trinity Repertory Company’s Pell Chafee Performance Center.
The play proffers varying themes of freedom, misogyny, adultery and the rat race, as well as commentary on family, particularly the mother-daughter relationship, the corporate system and the institution of marriage.
“For me, it was a story that I think a contemporary audience could identify with,” said director Aubrey Snowden MFA’13. “The play resonates with today’s financial climate within business and also what it means to be in this world, whether you’re a man or a woman,” Snowden said.
The audience enters the space to find the stage covered in what looks like a giant vertical painting frame with a white plastic sheet stretched across it. The action takes place on either side of the screen, with a lower “pit” area just in front of the audience. The show opens with the ensemble in an office, with rhythmic movement patterns embellishing the riveting wordplay.
The premise might seem simplistic at first glance – a young woman (Jaime Rosenstein MFA’13) is forced to marry her boss, George H. Jones, (Drew Ledbetter MFA ’13) while falling for a new man in her life (Alston Brown MFA’13). But once the story unfolds, it reveals a depth and clarity that can be attributed to fabulous, moment-to-moment acting and supreme direction.
Rosenstein shines as a versatile protagonist – while she begins the show with an ingenue-like appearance, her character takes on frightening emotions throughout the course of the show. The play takes us through the woman’s life, in which her tribulations reflect the universal rut, chauvinism and moral ambiguity that women face in the modern world.
“One of the bigger impetuses for me was Amanda Todd’s YouTube video,” Snowden said. The video is about a recent case of internet bullying and persecution, which led a teenager to take her own life.
Another highlight of the play is the prodigious performance by Amanda Dolan MFA’13, who plays Helen’s mother.
Characteristic of Trinity actors, the ensemble gives the audience their share of intense stares during monologues, surprising beats and changes in emotions, as well as a repertoire of character acting that makes each scene nuanced and thought-provoking.
Snowden’s interpretation adheres to the play’s early 20th-century setting with interesting costume choices making the context easier to understand.
The set is relatively minimalist, but the sheer number of combinations that the few props are used for is laudable. The same couple of plain benches are transformed into couches, hotel rooms, tables, a speakeasy, a hospital room, a courtroom and much more in surprisingly lively scene changes that are sometimes musical.
Designed by Daniel Baker of “Broken Chord,” Trinity’s sound design and music production group, the music through the entire play is germane – hammering and mechanical – with the robotic pulse being maintained for the entirety of the show. Interspersed through most of the dialogue, the music adds a special quality to the ensemble scenes.
The word “machinal” combines “machine” and “bacchanalia,” which is a reference to the Greco-Roman festivals of the bacchanalia, dedicated to the god of wine. The name itself initiates the string of metaphors and tropes that make the performance very exciting to watch. The play combines movement, music and straight drama with a superlative cast that excels under Snowden’s careful direction.
“Machinal” runs through Dec. 16 in the Pell Chafee Performance Center at Trinity Rep.