Sophie Treadwell’s play “Machinal” has been making the rounds in college theatre departments across the country. An expressionist – and incredibly feminist – play written in the late 1920’s, “Machinal” still feels relevant as ever in its most recent staging by Joseph Ritsch, Producing Artistic Director for Rep Stage and director of “Machinal” for the UMBC Theatre Department.
Treadwell’s play draws on the life and trial of Ruth Snyder, a woman who murdered her husband after enduring a loveless marriage and who was subsequently executed in January 1928 by electric chair. Nine months later, “Machinal” opened on Broadway.
Ritsch’s own vision of the show stands in stark contrast to typical productions which often explore the literal definition of machine, transforming the set into a pseudo-factory. Instead, he looks at theatre itself as a machine where all the actors come together, miniature automatons within a theatrical production. All characters, except Young Woman (Andie Cappelletti), the representation of Snyder, wear face masks, hiding their true feelings and selves from the world until moments of vulnerability shine through.
The play opens with Young Woman receiving a marriage proposal from Husband (Cynthia Davis), who falls in love with her because of her hands, which are unmarred from any physical labor, but still act as a symbol of the service Young Woman is expected to provide those around her. Davis plays Husband with terrifying realism, a personification of a hand sliding too far down the back.
Husband values Young Woman because of her inherent physical worth to him, and so Young Woman traverses a rocky relationship, much of it left out of the narrative. The hints Treadwell leaves behind, however, speak volumes. Young Woman is plagued with forceful contact – she repeatedly insinuates how uncomfortable Husband’s hands make her feel – and on her wedding night she makes it very clear she does not want to be touched. In the next episode of the play, Young Woman gives birth to a baby girl.
Cappelletti plays Young Woman with wide-eyed fervor and gives even her most disorganized ramblings focus. She fits effortlessly and yet not at all in the arms of those closest to her: Husband, Mother (Thelma Bush) and eventual Lover (Kathrin Bizzarro). Bizzarro shines in her role, embodying both a self-assuredness and openness that draws Young Woman in, and Bush plays a maternal figure ignorant of the many struggles her daughter faces.
The cast is made up exclusively of women, with male stagehands, but the all-female cast stands to draw further attention to the lines and behaviors that make up the male characters’ personalities. When Lover tells Young Woman that “there wasn’t one of [my former lovers] any sweeter than you,” it feels cheap, calling to mind confessions of love in romantic comedies. Even though Lover’s mask has long been forgotten by this point in the play, it still feels like he is lying.
“Machinal” would not be complete without its incredible costume design by Eric Abele, who outfitted everyone but Young Woman in bright, solid print colors. Young Woman, by contrast, looked like a porcelain doll, out of her element in a narrative in which she never felt accepted or at home.
Additionally, Alexander J. Roberts’s sound design brought another dimension to the storyline, adding in a uniquely mechanized component that implied the inevitability of the play’s outcome – the gears would just keep on turning until Young Woman met her death.
The masks come down at the end of “Machinal,” reminding the audience of the human behind each faceless character and bringing together Young Woman’s enduring experiences with coercion, flirtation and heartbreak as her small world gathers around the electric chair. “Machinal” offers an unsettling – and unmasked – look into a woman’s life, one that still feels relevant and realistic 90 years later.