Machine Trouble with “Machinal”


Last night was the opening night of The Roundabout Theater Company‘s production of Machinal.  If you don’t know Machinal, it is delicately disturbing play from 1928 – a challenging and artful piece of American Expressionism from playwright Sophie Treadwell.

machinal2 Machinal explores the place of humanity in an industrial era. Its themes are rooted in the deadening and alienating imagery of a mechanized age, and exploring the effects that world has on a person. In this instance, specifically a Young Woman.

By all accounts the production is a good one, with an excellent performance by the beautiful Rebecca Hall and a stunning set design from Es Devlin and direction and staging by Lyndsey Turner.

In the middle of last night’s performance, however, the machinery involved in Machinal‘s revolving set. . . stopped. Oh, the irony!

As reported by TheaterMania.com:

The true collaborative nature of theater was realized when, after recognizing that the problem couldn’t be fixed in a timely fashion, a host of volunteer stagehands manually turned the rotating set piece themselves so that the performance, directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Rebecca Hall, Suzanne Bertish, Morgan Spector, and Michael Cumpsty, could finally continue.

My first reaction to this bit of news wasn’t the “This is the theater community!” and “The true spirit of The Show Must Go On!”  My first reaction, of course, was:

WHY WEREN’T THEY DOING IT THAT WAY TO BEGIN WITH???

My very first reaction was “Wow, that must have really opened up the themes of the play a lot.  Machinal is also sometimes called ‘The Life Machine’ and it is about how this world – and the people in it- grind the Young Woman down!  Turning ACTUAL PEOPLE into essentially gears and cogs in the “machine” would kind of drive it home, wouldn’t it?”

And yes. . .I thought all of that in a matter of 1.25 seconds. My mind just works that way.

Of course, I know Lyndsey Turner is a brilliant director and I am continually inspired by what I read of her work.  I wouldn’t presume to think that her staging is anything less than effective and extraordinary and it is entirely probable that she considered the notion and rejected it for perfectly sound reasons.

I just always prefer a human solution to a staging concept rather than a technical solution, which is probably rooted in 20 years of theater-making on a shoestring. There are exceptions, of course. But in this case, I thought how much that need to improvise and fix the problem through human energy might have brought something new to the room.

And, of course, the real spontaneity and generosity from the volunteer stage hands is pretty great, too!

You can read a few reviews of Machinal here:

New York Magazine

New York Times

Time Out New York

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