Arts & Life

‘Machinal’ made its debut at the University Theater Friday night

The drama begins with a whir, the sound of machinery and clacking — always clicking, clacking.

The University Theater at Cal State Long Beach opens the stage Friday night with “Machinal.” The 1928 Sophie Treadwell play is set in New York in the ‘20s and follows one woman through her struggle for freedom in a society that wants to keep her caged. This is but the beginning of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 classic, “Machinal.”

“Machinal” tells the tale of stenographer Helen (April Sigman-Marx), who longs for freedom from her machine-like coworkers, her boss Mr. Jones (Tom Trudgeon), her husband and her mother.

The play is episodic, broken up into nine different episodes that span the course of Helen’s life with a marriage proposal from a man she does not love as the catalyst.

Helen begins the tale unhappy with her life, and increasingly becomes more detached from reality as her chances at freedom disappear one after another. She marries Jones to escape her stifling mother and a job she loathes, quickly finding that the obligations she has as a wife are more than she can bear. She has a daughter, but is disgusted by the child and seemingly trapped in the “cage” of motherhood.

The play follows her decline as she tirelessly tries to find meaning in her life through marriage, motherhood and an affair but finds herself stifled at every turn until the constant pressure pushes her to commit a final act of desperation for her freedom.

Her first true act of resistance comes in the shape of a nameless man that she has an affair with. In him, she finds her freedom but even he forsakes her in the pursuit of his own interests. Desperate for that freedom once again, Helen at last takes matters into her own hands and must deal with the consequences that come with her liberation.

A criticism of its time, “Machinal” asks audiences what is to become of an individual as society becomes increasingly mechanized. Everyone and everything in the play is meant to mimic machinery, depicting a society ran by machines rather than people.

The adding clerk reads off numbers constantly and the telephone girl rambles off answers as if she were a telephone herself.

Every sound, every song in the play is also mechanized. The show opens with the sound of whirring machinery. The music just outside of the two lovers’ room is a mechanical hand organ. The sound of telegraph instruments and typewriters remains omnipresent even long after the first scene which takes place in the office. Helen is constantly reminded that she is supposed to follow commands, like a robot.

The drama was inspired by the 1927 Ruth Snyder-Henry Gray trial, where Ruth Snyder, a housewife in Queens, New York, and her lover murdered Snyder’s husband and were convicted of murder.

It is the performance of Sigman-Marx that drew the attention — and later, standing ovation — of the audience. Her maddened delivery of Helen’s soliloquies and the timing of her gasps in between fits of hysteria command the attention of her audience from start to finish.

Trudgeon also performs spectacularly alongside Sigman-Marx. The dominant and submissive relationship of the two is portrayed well in the way that Sigman-Marx jumps at Trudgeon’s touches and the juxtaposition of Trudgeon’s animated delivery against Sigman-Marx’s monotone in their scenes together work well in creating an atmosphere of discomfort.

Nearly a century after the play’s initial debut, its message still remains: what will happen to the humans that resist the hierarchal systems in place and what would become of the women who finally declare their rebellion?

“Machinal” will be playing through Oct. 21 at the University Theater with shows at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and with Thursday shows at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for students and faculty of CSULB and $20 for members of the general public and can be purchased online or at the box office.

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