Review: ‘Machinal’ at George Mason University

Taut and remarkable is the production of Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic play Machinal (1928), performed by George Mason University School of Theater and Mason Players. A student production, Machinal successfully tackles “ripped-from-the-headlines” societal issues that have not faded away over the decades since Machinal was first seen on stage.

Julia Souza as the Young Woman, Joshua Vest as Husband. Photo by Tom Simpson

The issues that Machinal tackles? A young woman finds her life stifled by the pressures of her mother, work, marriage, and motherhood. Everyone and everything makes controlling demands of her. What can she do to free herself?

The production’s success starts with the fine, assured direction of Kayla Schultz (seeking a BFA in Theater). Schultz puts a potent, passionate imprint on the production. Her mark starts with her casting of Julia Souza (pursuing a BFA in Theater with a concentration in performance) as the young woman named Helen at the center of Treadwell’s Machinal. Then there is the precise pacing of robotic movements and mechanistic, clipped delivery of lines that Schultz has the nine-member ensemble convey. Over the course of Machinal, the ensemble is alive and in the moment as heightened visual cogs. The ensemble is an efficient assembly line moving set pieces, props, wiping down a bar counter or doing well accomplished, pantomime “typing.”

Souza’s knock-out portrayal of Helen is deeply personal and powerful. She is the needed strong presence to make Machinal work as dramatic theater. Not to get too far ahead of myself, but Souza has a laser-sharp nervousness when she delivers lines such as “I had to get out in the air,” and “I’ll not submit” and “I’ve submitted to enough, I won’t submit any more” and even “Oh, Ma!” I leaned forward far so as not to miss the nuance of her delivery as well as how she held herself while her forehead furrowed and eyes grew dark. Or when she tensed up when touched.

So, what is Treadwell’s Machinal specifically about? Machinal is the tale told in a number of ten minute or so bite-sized episodes, as a young woman comes undone, a young woman with little validation for herself and her life.

Whether her unbearable husband who loves Helen’s soft hands (Joshua Vest with a talent for delivering lines so they become arch and comic), an insensitive mother unable or unwilling to understand her own daughter’s pain (Arianna Flores-Moya, who portrays seething narcissism as selfishly demanding), Zack Almquist as an unreliable man who brings Helen some joy and release, but wants to be free himself. Oh, and like Helen’s husband, the man loves Helen’s soft hands.

Then there is the nine-member ensemble composed of GMU School of Theater students. They portray a passel of characters in Helen’s life: the likes of a condescending doctor impatient with Helen’s post-partum issue, a not-so-good-at-his trade lawyer, both of whom dominate Helen with what they think is best for her, a chipper but mean-spirited pack of co-workers who bully and mock Helen any chance they have.

The creative design elements for the George Mason University School of Theater production of Machinal include some evocative, telling period costume designs for the full cast. The outfits for Souza’s portrayal of Helen are usually demure (Joshua Stout designer), befitting her nervous presence in most scenes. In a scene with the young man with whom she feels free to love and be herself around, her clothes become less shapeless. The sound design includes some nifty typewriter and machine background by Dylan Sullivan along with soulful pre-show and intermission music full of darkening saxophones and horns. The haunting lighting design is by Angela Armstrong. Jared Pugh provides the overall scenic design and Ian Dickinson the props that include a number of moving set pieces that nicely fit together to make any number of objects (as I understand, there is a faculty artistic technical advising team assisting).

Treadwell’s Machinal lays its sympathies on its sleeve. But that permits the play’s journey to its final scene to be so gripping and unsettling, even if one knows what is coming after Helen’s emotional line: “I did it! I did it! I did it!” along with “Let me rest.”

Machinal asks many questions like “Love? What does that amount to?”  and what does it mean “to be free.” The GMU School of Theater production of Machinal is full of expressive tension depicting the internal chaos and hopelessness of a woman on the brink of actions that cannot be taken back.  

Let me end with this: we who care about the performing arts will be in good hands with the likes of those who created and performed in the GMU School of Theater and Mason Players production of Machinal. I hope to see these fine theater students on some area professional stages in the near future as they continue along their career paths.

Running time: About two hours, with one intermission.

Machinal runs through Sunday, November 18, 2018, at George Mason University deLaski Performing Arts Building, A105 TheaterSpace in Fairfax, VA 22030. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 945-2468 or purchase them online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

1 COMMENT

  1. I was apart of this production and I am so beyond thankful for this review. It really solidified my pride in this piece and all the work and love we put into it. Thank you so much for taking the time to come see it and writing such a beautiful review. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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