Machinalia – a response

Assaulted by sound. A noisescape that experientially presented embodied anxiety. Mic stand dialogue, alienating and surprisingly all the more evocative for it. Shit hanging from the ceiling. A donut that somehow is both a murder weapon and the patriarchy itself? A potato that is both a potato and a mother? A woman who cannot sit still. A looping Elvis song clip. A man whose ability to remain still—essentially, to pose—is evidence of his ultimate goodness, his nice guy perfection, his #notallmen…

The show clocks in at under an hour, and it is concise as hell. It knows what it needs to spend time on, what it doesn’t, and when to end. The entire piece is exquisitely staged by director Will Detlefsen, and expertly performed by Mary Glen Fredrick and Enrico Nassi. The two performers play multiple characters—with Fredrick switching back and forth between protagonist Ellen Jones and a variety of other characters at her home and work, and Nassi playing mainly the man she marries (Mr. J), but also the random man she meets and has an affair with, a thrilling encounter that seems to lead to her demise.

Given the knowledge that the production was an adaptation of Machinal by Sophie Treadwell (1928), its freshness and originality are a welcome surprise. That said, it is this aspect of the show that occasionally risks datedness—the “battle of the sexes” message can get a bit on the nose, and the protagonist’s central conflict is presented a bit simplistically. It is difficult to imagine a woman in New York in 2017 or thereabouts choosing to marry a man who is so obviously villainous, a woman whose decision to marry such an obvious douchebag arises from desperation as opposed to cunning or selective willful ignorance. However, the basic plot is so thoroughly used as a launch pad for analyzing the schizophrenia of being a woman in a society that is male-dominant (even and perhaps especially today) that I didn’t mind very much.

And oh how schizophrenic womanhood is, for protagonist Ellen Jones (played by Fredrick). And while her sanity is clearly up for debate during the whole show—she threatens to kill her mother when she calls her crazy, she winds up literally killing her husband in a fit of rage and helplessness—we are let in to Jones’ thoughts enough to see that she is perfectly lucid and that, given the chaos overwhelming her life, it is almost understandable that she is unable to remain nonviolent.

Sophie Treadwell’s play is based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, and it would be easy to see her character as an isolated incident, a ‘crazy person’, an anomaly. This adaptation never gave into that temptation as it made her fragility so clear and easy to empathize with. Partially this was because we literally felt the weight of her stress from the audience: the noise was really noisy, the bit characters were all cloyingly annoying, the constant speaking into hand mics in the small theater was jarring and in your face and the speech was fast and the actors moved around so quickly and frenetically and the pace was like lightning and before you know it you are with Ellen Jones in the electric chair, speaking a devastating monologue to her young daughter, about what will happen to her as she grows up.

This hits home. While resisting the urge to universalize, I couldn’t help but feel that Ellen Jones is all women. I don’t care if you grow up to marry a feminist man, or a woman, or never marry at all. I think that regardless of the choices you make or the path that chooses you in life, if you grew up a girl—even if you presented as a boy at the time, although this is a more complicated case, of course—you got a sense of unease at some point that eventually blew up into a full-blown fog horn (or an assaulting barrage of screeching distorted noise, like the incredible sound design by Steven Leffue) that you couldn’t ignore: in a world made by men, where there are still way more men in positions of power than women, your identity is subject to change. Always. And you must change it, if you are going to get what you want—if you are even going to figure out what you want—and if you are going to protect yourself. To feel like you are not constantly tossed around like a small ship at sea, you must fiercely claw your way into an identity that feels solid, and sometimes that clawing comes at a price.

And this seems to be the problem with Ellen – she cannot protect herself. The noise of life never abates, she cannot keep her clothes clean, hair clean, schedule on time, mother fed—she cannot keep it (read: herself) together. Falling apart, she scrambled to grasp the only opportunity that might suffice—weirdly enough, by marrying a man who fell in love with her “because of her hands.”

In addition to this portrayal of womanhood, the play also does a good job of illustrating the double standard between the unsolid women and the easily defined man: Ellen’s husband is praised eloquently for things like meeting the bare minimum requirements of fatherhood; Ellen is criticized and interrogated about nearly every decision she makes as a young mother. Other such examples abound in the show. Moreover, as though to thematically match this enormous disparity between what we expect of women versus what we expect of men, Fredrick’s own part is noticeably more challenging and virtuosic than Nassi’s. It is a challenge to which actor Fredrick very much rises, and her noticeable exhaustion by the play’s end highlights this disparity.

At first I wondered why playwright Steph Del Rosso made this choice to only have two actors: why not have a Greek chorus play the other characters, as Vogel did in How I Learned to Drive? But as the show progressed, having Fredrick throw herself around the stage, inhabiting up to five voices and postures within one scene alone once again thematically illustrated this motif of womanhood as malleable, schizophrenic, and always a performance.

A few of Fredrick’s movement sequences—she is whipped around the stage by her hands, they seem to be possessed of their own free will, etc.—fail to really land, although whether this was because of the performance, choreography, or space limitations I could not tell. There were several stage lights and electrical chords and mic stands all over, and they seemed to (rightfully so) inhibit Fredrick’s ability to truly throw herself across the stage.

When I was still a toddler, my psychiatrist father—who had grown up with three younger sisters no less—was so scared of my impending adolescence that he felt he needed help. He purchased a book to do the job: Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. Its subtitle is “Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” and it addresses the fact that vivacious, happy young girls so often become dispirited, unconfident young teenagers. This downward slide is portrayed to us in stark clarity in Ellen’s final words, as she searches her life’s journey for where she went wrong, how she could have wound up anywhere but here.  This sense of wasted life, of loss, of helplessness shine through in the play’s final moments, which shrink to center a spotlight on Ellen’s face just before she dies.

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