Being modern has never felt so wrong.
This is the overwhelming sensation of the TAPS production of Machinal, Christina Medina’s senior project directed by Sammi Cannold.
Machinal is the story of a young woman, Helen (Elisa Vidales) who works as a low level office clerk and supports her mother (Christina Medina.) Doing everything expected of a woman, however hesitantly, she finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to George H. Jones (Sebastian Sanchez,) a man who disgusts her; and having an affair with the young Richard (Ian Anstee.) On trial for murdering her husband, Helen Jones must defend herself by telling us, “the gentlemen of the jury,” how she got here.
This production showcases some of Stanford’s finest acting this quarter. Medina, though only featured in a small portion of the play, impresses herself upon the audience as a staunch, yet distraught mother. The layers of her obsessive personality peel themselves off in the cross section of the mother-daughter relationship we get to witness. Similarly well-cast and -played, Ian Anstee’s Richard Roe is suave and non-committal. The relationship he and his counterpart (leading lady Elisa Vidales) have developed is tragically emblematic of the types of connections we moderns inevitably form – fleeting, desperate, and rife with co-dependence. Whatever axis the world is spinning around, it’s not love, and it’s not romance – their fling drives that stake deep into the heart. Without a doubt, the show’s brightest star is its least likeable character. There is no other adjective to describe Sanchez’ interpretation of George H. Jones besides important. Sleazy, revolting, and privileged, Helen’s rich husband is incredibly convincing. Everyone who wants to learn how to act at a school with few learning opportunities ought to go see him play.
Once again, Cannold brings alive in her work an unparalleled visuality, one that transcends the age-old ‘show-don’t-tell’ adage of narrative arts. Her Machinal is not merely staged – it is created, fueled by the artistic energy of a fantastic ensemble, and reflected in every single movement made onstage. True to its name, the story is a machinery. You can see its cogs turning in a systematized effort to produce meaning; for instance, as the actors move the furniture in multiple permutations to assemble the scenes about which Mrs. Helen Jones testifies. In most aspects of her work, Cannold excels beyond expectation.
The production does, however, leave something to be desired. While poignant in its physicality, Machinal fails to move in the most significant of ways. Expressive and emotive, but rarely emotional, the otherwise calm story plots to subject us to discrete moments of explosion that somehow do not amount to their full disruptive potential. We can never be sure that the meticulousness of the show intends to swallow the raw predilection for ecstasy and despair that Elisa Vidales’ woman-on-the-verge character tries to express. In other words, if we imagine Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist theatre as a sound, it would probably be an ear-shredding scream; and in some unanticipated way, this production trips and falls behind a soundproof wall.
What is wrong with being modern? Helen Jones explains it best when she says she feels “all tight inside.” So, if there is a barrier we all must negotiate with the world – between an inner, contemplative life, and an outer, communicated one, the profoundly unsettling realization of modernity lies in the fact that this barrier is no longer on the outside of us. It has instead been pushed so far inside by the inevitability of efficiency and social ritual, that it does away with any sense we might have of being our own people. Even from behind the soundproof walls, we hear screaming, bellowing, gasping, and cannot help but shudder.
Machinal. Presented by Theatre and Performance Studies. Written by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Nov 13-15. Nitery Theater.
Photo credits: Stefani Okuda