Tuesday, May 28, 2024

"Machinal" by Clevername Theatre at the Center for Performing Arts

Machinal: mechanical, done without thinking, from force of habit. Early 20th century playwright Sophie Treadwell uses this word as the title of her her 1928 play about a woman caught in the mechanics of a woman's expected life path and the disastrous results. In Clevername Theatre's new production (my first experience with the play), it feels like it could have been written yesterday instead of almost 100 years ago. It's performed in the German Expressionist style with exaggerated, almost absurd, performances, which is a bit off-putting. But that's intentional, and how the play was written, and it beautifully and harshly exemplifies the experience of this woman. Even if the style feels unfamiliar to audiences used to modern American theater, the themes are resonant with modern life. The show is halfway through its short two-week run, with only three remaining performances at the Center for Performing Arts in Uptown.

Loosely based on a real-life murder trial, the story follows an unnamed young woman who marries her boss even though she finds him repulsive, because that's what women did in 1928 (and maybe sometimes still today, although hopefully we have more options now). It's a horrifying and unfulfilling life, and she finds no solace in the baby she soon has, and only momentary solace with a lover. She's driven to extremes out of desperation for an end to her misery, but the end is not what she expected.

Victoria Jones as the young woman (photo courtesy of Clevername)
Grace Barnstead directs the 11-person cast, all of whom are 100% committed to this style, with exaggerated ways of speaking and moving, often with repetitive mechanical movements. Even in this surreal style, Victoria Jones imbues the character of the young woman with humanity, making her sympathetic despite her extreme choices, and really allowing us to feel her descent into madness. Many ensemble members play multiple characters, creating this weird and unhappy world she lives in. They're dressed in modern clothes of crisp black, grey, and white, with harsh bold makeup (costume design by Genevieve Kafka).

In the black box space of the CFPA, the performance space is filled with weathered grey furniture that look like it's from an abstract art exhibit. The chairs and stools fit together like puzzle pieces to form a bed or couch or other pieces, with typewriters and other mechanical equipment used to create a soundscape. This is on top of the recorded sound that's almost constant, at times so loud and incessant that it almost causes a nervous system reaction, which is also probably intentional. Nothing about this play is comfortable, maybe to make the audience feel a bit of the discomfort that this woman feels, so much so that her only escape is murder (sound design by Alexander Gerchak, set and props design by Connor McEvoy).

To be honest, this isn't really my kind of play, I prefer more realism in my theater. I walked away with an immediate reaction of "that was super weird." But the more I thought about it, and read about the play and inspiration, and let the experience soak in, the more I recognize the artistry in the work of this cast and creative team. I think this is exactly the vision of the playwright when she wrote it 100 years ago, and it's a credit to all (and maybe a discredit to our society) that it still feels so relevant. I've previously only seen Clevername at the Fringe, with two delightfully weird mash-up adaptations of Albee and Brecht. This play fits right in that vein, only with no cuddly bears to soften the bleakness of the material, or the world we live in.