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Expressionist 1928 play retains power

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Machine-like office workers in an anonymous business, a marriage under pressure and the (factual) first execution of a woman in an electric chair all come to bear on 'Machinal.'

It's not hard to see why in the past few decades "Machinal," the 1928 Broadway success and expressionist jewel of a play by Sophie Treadwell, has been a favorite piece of repertoire for brainiac, experimental theater-makers.

Though it's frequently studied as a quintessential example of expressionist theater - episodic dramas of the early 20th century characterized by highly stylized speech and plots that typically illuminate a struggle against bourgeois authority - "Machinal" was overlooked by directors for years. Thanks to some well-received revivals in the 1990s, Treadwell's trenchant drama is back in circulation.

And thanks to award-winning Austin director Dustin Wills, we have a penetrating, creatively original new production playing at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Produced under the aegis of Wills' new collaborative company Paper Chairs, this "Machinal" preserves the period character of Treadwell's 1920s milieu. And yet keen, nuanced acting across the cast and a brilliantly conceived set by Lisa Laratta add a very contemporary smartness. This "Machinal" proves a point - Treadwell's is a timeless play.

And it's not an easy one, for sure.

A reporter as well as a playwright, Treadwell was assigned to cover the sensational 1927 trial of a stenographer named Ruth Snyder who, along with her lover, murdered her husband. Snyder's conviction led to the first execution of a woman in an electric chair, a grisly event that was captured by a reporter wearing a hidden camera that became a widely published media sensation.

But what distinguishes "Machinal" from other social-protest cautionary tales of its time is that Treadwell tells her tale through a female - proto-feminist? - lens.

Only identified as Young Woman, the central character - an evocatively brittle Chase Crossno - is caught in the zeitgeist of pre-Depression America, trapped in a mind-numbing job in a unidentified business, pressed by her money-hungry mother to marry her boss (a brilliantly creepy Tom Truss) whom she detests and pushed forward by the societal pressures to marry. The woman's story unfolds in nine clearly delineated episodes: workplace, home, honeymoon, speakeasy and so on.

Though the woman finds brief happiness in an affair with a man she meets in a speakeasy (played by a riveting Gabriel Luna), even that eventually dooms her when she commits the ultimate act. And then, well - you'll see the electric chair when you enter the theater.

As a director, Wills revels in Treadwell's flattened yet highly stylized language. Devoid of nuance and emotion, it's telegraphic, delivered machine-gun fast by the nameless office workers as they madly punch at vintage typewriters and adding machines. Or else the deadpan speech remains adrift between characters, never carrying any meaning, underscoring the chasms between these machine-like people.

Wills and Laratta set the drama in the round, ringing the stage with rows of mismatched chairs. In the center, Laratta has made a wooden stage platform pocked by vintage cabinet doors of various sizes that characters open and close to pull out or put away props. Indeed, the stage is a platform of trap doors that seems to menace every action.

To great effect, Wills adds to Treadwell's sparse stylized language with a vocabulary of sparse stylized movements all his own. With rhythmic, almost-military precision, ensemble members move on and off the stage, at times even marching machine-like around the audience seating areas. And Jeff Jones' sound design blankets the production with an ever-changing cacophony of machine-like noises.

With this "Machinal," Wills delivers an affecting, commanding version of a potent American play.


When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through June 13

Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road

Cost: $15-$30, Thursdays pay-what-you-wish