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A Play For Our Age

October 20, 2008

Sophie Treadwell's Machinal is as much a play for our age as it was a play for the age in which it was written - late 1920s America.

This country certainly seems to be heading towards a similar economic crisis, and like Treadwell's seething worker-bee protagonist, Helen Jones, many of us are now experiencing the less-than-positive impact of so-called technological "progress" in our day-to-day lives.

Treadwell's brutal-satirical view of a life lived according to the rules of "the machine" and the destructive effects of that life on a young woman, assault the theatre-goer with a primordial snarl in Mark Jackson's stomach-clenching, gob-smacking, eye-opening production at San Francisco State University.

As with his previous SF State production of Don Juan last year, the director manages to take what many would consider to be an intimidating play -- it's written in an expressionistic style, is based on the the real life case of convicted and executed murderess Ruth Snyder and runs two hours with no intermission -- and turns it into something scary, intimate and irresistible.

The entire production bores into the brain like a jackhammer. Jackson subtly presages Jones' eventual fate at the electric chair for killing the husband she never loved through the use of some 300 sound effects perfectly calculated to jangle our nerves, from a shutting hotel door that sounds like prison bars slamming to a drill outside a hospital that more closely suggests machine gun fire. In the opening scene set in Jones' workplace, the green hue of the office clerks' 1920s garb boldly expresses the envy that the Jones' co-workers feel for her as the latest object of the boss' affections. And when the sparsely-designed production's one main scenic element -- a plain grey wall -- descends down on the convicted Jones as she goes to her death by electrocution in the final scene, we feel like the entire sky is falling on our heads. It's a Chicken Little moment, but it's not in the least bit funny.

The production is far from heavy-handed though. In fact, apart from the very last moments of the play described above, it's extremely witty. Commenting with a 21st century sensibility on the overblown physicality of expressionist theatre and the hammy mannerisms of early screen talkies, the actors push text and gesture as far as they will go, turning such mundane activities as washing the dishes or answering the phone into grotesque stereotypes of a bygone age. Victoria Rose's telephone operator is almost Betty Boop-like with her nasal, cutey-pie vocal inflections and hammily-feminine gestures. Kenny Toll's bent-over, arachnid prosecutor could be an evil character out of a Dickens novel. And Robb Siminoski plays the feckless businessman George H. Jones like wind-up W C Fields, hitting each of his bland catchphrases with wheezy self-importance and a blank, Cheshire Cat grin.

Led by the luminous Megan Hopp as Jones, Jackson's cast of physically bold, textually astute undergraduate performers belie their relative inexperience. Once again, I came away from the theatre with my head spinning, wondering why "professional" companies rarely produce work as intelligent, emotionally disturbing and fresh as this.


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