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StageStruck: Death by Machine

UMass theater’s all-woman season opens with a whydunit.

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Thursday, November 01, 2012
Marielle O'Malley and Zachary T. Smith in Machinal

This year, the UMass Department of Theater celebrates its 40th anniversary. The season is dedicated to one of the department’s founding faculty, Doris Abramson, who taught there from 1973 until her retirement in 1987 (she died in 2008). In her honor, this is a season of plays by and about women.

They include a musical, based on a Doris Betts short story, concerning a young woman’s quest for physical and spiritual healing; an original script interweaving two works by 17th-century Spanish women playwrights, about women dealing with multiple suitors; an examination of the side-show exploitation of the South African woman known as “the Hottentot Venus,” by Mount Holyoke College alumna Suzan-Lori Parks; and a historical fantasy on the life and exploits of Casanova, from a woman’s perspective, by Valley-based playwright Constance Congdon.

The season opens with a new production of the last play Abramson directed before her retirement. Machinal, written in 1928 by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, was inspired by several lurid murder trials of women who had killed their husbands, particularly the case of Ruth Snyder, who died in Sing Sing’s electric chair the year the play was written. Treadwell’s real interest was not in the crimes themselves, but in the loneliness and discontent that she felt must have provoked them.

The expressionist play explores the darker side of the Jazz Age, a time when modernism was releasing new social and artistic energy but also making the world more mechanized and impersonal. It concerns a naïve, nameless young woman who yearns for love and fulfillment but is stifled by others’ expectations in a machine-driven world. Trapped in a robotic office job and a suffocating marriage, driven to the edge of madness by isolation and submission, this Everywoman finally grasps for an illusory freedom in a reckless act of violence. (The word machinal comes from the French, denoting not only “mechanical” and “automatic” but “instinctive.”)

The current production, directed by MFA candidate Brianna Sloan, seeks to evoke the vertiginous feel of the young woman’s experience: dizzying, machine-like, fast-paced and frightening. The ensemble cast, led by UMass sophomore Marielle O’Malley, enacts rhythmic rituals of industrial precision (shades of Charlie Chaplin’s satirical Modern Times). This kind of imagery, for example, an office that works like a factory assembly line, also draws on “the old movie image of a huge newspaper printing press spewing out headlines,” Sloan says. “We’re using a lot of heightened physicality, movement that’s not quite musical, but it has this rhythm.”

Devon Drohan’s set is a multilevel collection of black-and-white cubes backed by a skyscraper-high wall of translucent squares and a huge clock with no hands. “I wanted to include the presence of time,” Sloan explains. “There’s no specific countdown, just the fact that we’re getting to the end, time is running out”—for the heroine as well as for the clockwork society Treadwell feared was extinguishing the human spark.•

Nov. 1-3, 6-10, Curtain Theater, UMass, Amherst, umass.edu/theater, tickets 545-2511 or 800-999-UMAS.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker. com.

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