Machinal gave audience little to rage against

by Beacon Staff • March 29, 2006

Treadwell left feeling the male press corps and jury could not understand the greater lesson to be learned from Snyder's case, especially when they sentenced her to death by electric chair.,In 1927, Sophie Treadwell, journalist and women's rights advocate, witnessed the trial of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island housewife who conspired with her lover to kill her husband.

Treadwell left feeling the male press corps and jury could not understand the greater lesson to be learned from Snyder's case, especially when they sentenced her to death by electric chair. Snyder would be only the second woman in United States history to be thus sentenced.

Treadwell wrote the play Machinal in 1928, attempting to find a way to voice the feelings that Synder's case inspired within her. Treadwell's play tells the story of Young Woman (played by senior musical theatre major Sarah Hunt) who works to support her mother in the fast-paced, unfeeling world of America's Roaring Twenties.

Emerson Stage's recent performance of Machinal was an outstanding show, and its performances are worthy of remembrance for a long time.

When Young Woman's boss proposes marriage, despite the fact she cannot stand his touch, Young Woman agrees. Her sacrifice, of course, can only end in pain.

Emerson Stage's production of Machinal was stunning before the action even began-the utilization of the Greene Theatre as multiple simple sets which held all the necessary props was an excellent choice, showing the technical prowess of the performance.

Though Machinal is an expressionist piece, the movement of the actors during the opening scene made it clear they were on a subway without the use of any props at all. The music, too, composed by Camille Jentgen, created a sense of time and place.

But the real focal point was the performance of Hunt as Young Woman. From the opening scene, you see that she is lost and unhappy in this overly mechanical era.

Hunt's multifaceted performance was especially noticeable in her scene with Young Woman's Mother, played superbly by graduate theatre education student Emily Sinagra.

Even the props, utensils spread all over the floor, seemed to reverberate with the character's emotions as the audience grew to understand the reality of Young Woman's world.

The performances of senior acting major Thomas McGinn as the Husband and junior acting major David Shaw as First Man were also notable. McGinn never made Husband seem needlessly cruel-he acted the same as any man of his position would, and yet he also seemed a predator in relation to Young Woman.

Though he spent only a little time on stage, Shaw's First Man acted like every cad from any noir film, yet Shaw's performance made the audience understand his relationship with Young Woman, even though he could never stay with her.

One scene in particular will remain memorable-Young Woman's impregnation by Husband, in which she lets out a blood-curdling scream after striving to avoid his touch. As her marital bed becomes a hospital bed, she seems to have lost all strength of will, telling a nurse she wanted neither boy nor girl as the doctors crowd around her and dispassionately diagnose her ills. The ensemble of medical staff and birthing women bring magnitude to this striking portrayal.

Emerson Stage delivered an electrifying and technically astute performance-a pity to those who missed this incomparable show.

He said that he did not approach the role differently, despite the time that had passed.

"I wanted to honor the work that we had done 10 years ago," he said. "I'm sure that there are different aspects that came through differently, but I really tried to be true to the work and tell the story and have the characters come alive."

Along with the emotional appeal, many have appreciated the show's political messages.

Rapp said that he has been approached by people who have said that even though they never knew someone who had AIDS, they felt like they did, or that, as a result of seeing Rent, they are now donating money to local hospices or to Broadway Cares, a non-profit consortium of theatre professionals dedicated to funding AIDS research.

The subject matter was ignored in many reviews of the film, an omission that greatly angered Rapp, who considers acknowledgement and awareness of homelessness, homosexuality and AIDS "absolutely vital."

However, he said that the positive responses to both the show and film have been deeply rewarding.

"I know that it's making a difference," he said. "And I know that was part of Jonathan's intention. I think it's an incredible service."