It is not often that a new production of a 73 year-old play is capable of making the script feel as fresh, vibrant, relevant, and revitalizing as if it were written yesterday. The production of Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's 1928 play, which opened last night at the Ohio Theatre, makes it all seem as effortless as taking a breath of fresh air.
Though Ginevra Bull is the play's billed director, Machinal never feels as much like a play as it does a symphony. As the show begins, the stage is awash in a cacophony of sound. Typewriters, telephones, an adding machine, and even a mail delivery cart combine with pointed, staccato lines delivered with expert timing by the actors create a rich tapestry of music that instantly draws us into the play's world. The actors' movements are invested with the same crisp delivery. Though the actors may not always move at razor-sharp right angles or travel in perfectly straight lines, the movement is so clean and well-orchestrated, it is impossible to notice a misstep.
Though it would be easy to let this wonderful device of the play's first scene set the mood and then fall by the wayside, Bull allows no such thing to happen. Each new scene continues to expand and build on the aural and visual language the previous scenes established. The percussion or the melody may shift, or the visual focus may change temporarily, but the music and artistry of the dialogue and staging are equally strong throughout the play. Bull has created a universe we are never allowed to escape from for a moment, not even during the scene changes that are frequently as compelling as the action of the scenes themselves.
Adrian Jones's design proves the perfect complement to Bull's brisk staging. The set, consisting of a few wheeled set pieces and a multipurpose wall (which is not immune to Bull's imposed physics of this production) is effective and surprising, and, with the lighting, able to allow the stage to grow to mammoth proportions or to focus on a single actor, perhaps only a few feet away.
Thankfully, each member of the ten person ensemble is more than up to the challenge of interpreting the world Treadwell described but Bull created. Jessica Claire has the play's largest role, the tortured Helen forever on a quest for freedom. Claire is required, over the course of the play, to experience nearly every emotion imaginable, and handles each one - as well as the transitions - expertly. Whether confused, sultry, scared, or brave, Helen is always believably and occasionally frighteningly real.
Jack O'Neill, as Helen's lover Richard, makes a perfect match for Claire, and their scenes together are as full of passion and longing as the script requires. Though Jacqueline Sydney is featured only in one scene (as Helen's mother), she makes an unmistakable impression, and seems capable of aging decades just by the way she stands in the light or turns her head, making her all the more startling and unrecognizable when she appears later as other characters. Richard Kohn, as Helen's boss (and later husband) is at the same time endearing and thoughtless.
Though Michael Doyle has less to do than many of the other cast members, his youthful innocence and charm stand out, especially in the first scene as he frantically delivers mail and moral observations from his unique perspective on the action. Alison Cimmet, David Lapkin, Jerry Della Salla, Dina Comolli, and David B. Martin round out the ensemble, each being allowed moments to shine, while likewise knowing when to allow the focus to shift elsewhere.
Such a stunning production would never have been possible without a marvelous script, and Treadwell definitely provided that. Though the story, about a woman's loveless marriage, the infidelity it inspires, her trial, and sentence, is by the numbers, the stylistic way it is told and the use of the language are what gives Machinal the punch on which Bull and company were able to build. Machinal is proof that the English language allows communication beyond the realm of simple conversation, a lesson Bull's production elaborates upon many times over.
If you know the play, you deserve to experience this production. If you don't know the play, you are unlikely to find a better production than this. If you have been longing to see a great production of a great play, this may satisfy you on that level, but will enrich you beyond that as well. Bull and company have created more than a simple play in their production of Machinal, they have created a work of art that should not be missed.