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Theater review: ‘Machinal’ at Open Fist Theatre

October 20, 2011 |  9:00 pm

‘Machinal’ at Open Fist Theatre
Though written in 1928 and ripped from the headlines of a sensational contemporaneous murder trial, very little about Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” feels dated. That’s due as much to Treadwell’s forward-looking modernist vision of urban dehumanization as to her idiosyncratic stylistic voice, which downplayed topical references in favor of more abstract representation.

Don’t expect warm hugs as Open Fist Theatre’s edgy revival achieves the author’s intended clinical Brechtian detachment, though some aspects of the piece could be more effectively realized. In this nine-segment tale of an office worker-turned-trophy wife-turned-murderess, perfectly-cast Charlotte Chanler brings wild-eyed desperation to the dangerously haunted protagonist, a young woman sketched in broad generic strokes (we only learn her name is Helen in a passing aside). Nevertheless, Chanler nails the play’s icy rage as the young woman’s longing for freedom is thwarted at every turn by forces of socio-economic oppression, anticipating feminist dialectics by several decades. 

Opening with her dead-end clerical job in a nameless office where employees move and speak like extensions of the machines they work on, the young woman’s only escape is through loveless marriage to her smug, condescending boss (and excellent Arthur Hanket). Though her discontent with traditional avenues of fulfillment is palpable, the vacancy at her core keeps her from being any more sympathetic than her oppressors. The depiction of her wedding night, as her lecherous husband bounces her on his lap like a gangly rag doll, shows off Barbara Schofield’s staging at its creepy, furious best.

Despite standout supporting performances from Marilyn McIntyre and Elizabeth Greer, some scenes lose focus in a meandering compromise between archetypal elements and period specificity, without a consistent commitment one way or the other among the sprawling ensemble.

–- Philip Brandes

“Machinal,” Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 20. $25 (pay-what-you-can Friday and Oct. 30). (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: John LeMay, Charlotte Chanler, Daniel May and Elizabeth Greer. Credit: Maia Rosenfeld.

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