By MARK BLANKENSHIP
For director Lyndsey Turner, Machinal is a much more terrifying play when the characters occasionally seem like real people.
That's not necessarily a given. Written in 1928, Sophie Treadwell's drama is a highpoint of Expressionism, a genre famous for creating physical representations of the abstract forces in society. (Think of the ticker tape that fills the stage in Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, suggesting how mindless jobs can smother our identities.) In nine taut scenes, Treadwell tracks Helen, an average woman stumbling through the steps of a "normal life:" career, marriage, honeymoon, childbirth, nights reading the paper, and on and on and on. Everyone around Helen is perfectly content in the whirring machine of modern existence, and as they clack away on typewriters or go through the motions of flirting, they seem more and more mechanical, like tiny birds popping out of a cuckoo clock and chirping that everything's fine.
Helen, however, doesn't fit in, and as the play progresses, she tries to rebel. At every turn, though, society rises up against her, and even when she takes a drastic step, she only tastes a moment of freedom. Treadwell underlines Helen's hopelessness by calling for mechanical sounds and disturbing light cues, and by writing almost robotic speeches for the people who punish the young woman for stepping out of line.
And Turner, who's directing the play's first-ever Broadway revival in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines, can absolutely imagine a version of the show that puts the emphasis on a literal machine of society. "That's a perfectly valid way of approaching the play, where you know what people are doing because the machine wills it so," she says. "I'd love to see the version with the giant metal claw hovering over everything."
In her version, however, the mechanical always springs from the human. When we first meet characters, the actors make them seem relatable, and in fact, entire scenes, like an argument between Helen and her mother about the value of love, play like kitchen-sink drama. Eventually, though, reality gets ratcheted up. The people moving through a maternity ward, for instance, repeat the same gestures over and over and over, until they become grotesque caricatures of happy parents and busy nurses. Similarly, Es Devlin's set is filled with recognizable furniture, but as it transitions between scenes, it spins like a giant lazy Susan, showing us strange nooks and crannies filled with strange-looking people that we didn't know were there.
"Everybody comes from something truthful, and then we see the mechanization of those people once we've located the truth of them," says Turner, a Brit who's making her American debut with this production. "The doctor in scene four isn't playing a robot doctor. [The actor] immersed himself in the best medical research of the time, and then in the playing of it, he found the rhythm and the permission to go somewhere other than naturalism."
Turner continues that if the show didn't begin in a more recognizable place, then the audience might miss Treadwell's argument. "If on stage you put wheels and turbines and engines, then it becomes very easy for the audience to say, 'Poor old Helen. What chance did she have? She trapped inside a massive machine!' But the people make the machine."
That bears repeating: The people make the machine. As easy as it is to blame "society" for driving everyday people over the edge, society is only what we allow it to be. "The big idea of the show is that it's the sheer weight of people and cultural expectations and social norms that oppress and deform us, rather than a big metal claw," Turner says.
Creating a world that feels both natural and mechanical requires a sophisticated acting style, and Turner collaborated closely with a choreographer and her 18-person cast to create a distinct approach to movement and speech. "We've got to agree on what the rules of the hospital are before we can play the hospital," she says.
And those rules may not be immediately apparent to contemporary artists. "The default setting of modern acting and modern directing is a kind of forensic naturalism, so it's a real challenge for me and for the acting company," Turner says. "Many of the annotations we've made on the script are things like 'Initiate the apology machine.' There's a shorthand in our rehearsal room where we know we have a twin loyalty to character and to the overall machine that is present in any given scene."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus