Nearly a century old, Machinal’s underlying themes as relevant as ever

Fountain School season continues with video play

- December 1, 2020

A screen shot from Machinal. Top from left: Aquila Wibisono, Ella MacDonald, Misha Bakshi. Bottom from left: Emma Brown, Kirsten Claussner.
A screen shot from Machinal. Top from left: Aquila Wibisono, Ella MacDonald, Misha Bakshi. Bottom from left: Emma Brown, Kirsten Claussner.

If you were to write a play about 2020, it would probably sound something like this: in a pandemic-ravaged world, a young woman grapples with her increasing sense of alienation as a result of the encroachment of technology into daily life.

It might come as a surprise that this is actually the plot of the Fountain School of Performing Arts’ production of Machinal (1928). Though Sophie Treadwell wrote the play nearly 100 years ago, its underlying themes are as relevant as ever.

Machinal, the second production of the Dal Theatre 2020-21 season, will be pre-recorded and available to view for free as a private Vimeo link from Tuesday, Dec. 1 to Saturday, Dec. 5. To see the play, audience members must request the link through a brief online request form.

Brave new world

Inspired by the trial and execution of the murderer Ruth Snyder, Machinal uses character archetypes — Young Woman, Mother, Husband   to explore how societal forces can impact our inner lives. Specifically, Treadwell unpacks the effects of oppression on women.

“I see it as a play about a woman in the modern world, where the modern world hasn’t adjusted to the fact that a woman’s position is changing,” says Jure Gantar, director and professor. “So it’s about, essentially, female agency and modernity.”

The role of women in the modern period is a prevalent topic in the play. The Young Woman faces numerous challenges that are still relevant today, such as the expectation of marriage, workplace harassment and postpartum depression. By universalizing the characters, Treadwell shows us how these common issues are compounded by a cold and uncaring society.

“I think Treadwell's Young Woman really represents the ways we feel distanced from the people and the world around us,” says assistant director Molly Somers.

“That distance can really disarm us and sweep us along at a pace we aren't prepared for.”

To bring out the parallels between the play and modern life, the production is set during the Spanish flu pandemic at the end of World War I. The goal is for audiences to “see how relatable it is in our world,” says Dr. Gantar. “Yes, alcohol is legal now, you don’t have to go to a seedy bar, and she would have not been sentenced to death. But so many other things remain, the hopelessness or the strength, however you want to look at it.”

Expressionism, online

Treadwell’s script is a clear example of American Expressionism, the modernist movement that prioritized subjectivity, episodic plots and overwrought language. The genre is notable for using set design to externalize interior feelings, which presents an interesting challenge for an online production that uses the actors’ living spaces as its set.

Dr. Gantar’s original ideas for the show involved using the Sir James Dunn Theatre. Unfortunately, the safety restrictions that are in place made this impossible.

“We had to rejig our plan all-together. We had a totally different sense of how the space would work, which would have been very interesting. . . so then we had to redo it.”

To keep the Expressionist style, the production team was forced to come up with a new vision. Their plan, according to Dr. Gantar, is to make the show “look like a cross between German Expressionism of the 1920s and a graphic novel of the era.”

Read more: Fountain School performance season begins online with "Concord Floral"

“You have to adjust to the fact that you are not giving the audience much freedom in terms of what to view,” explains Dr. Gantar. By placing the actors in comic-style panels, the intention is to provide audiences with opportunities for their eyes to wander in the same way that an in-person performance would.
Dr. Gantar says that this approach “will embrace the idea of Zoom theatre in a sense. Rather than fight the boxes, [the production will] make the boxes into a strength.”

Since the visuals are somewhat limited, the show places greater emphasis on audio. Luckily, Treadwell wrote specific sound cues that provide Technical Theatre students with exciting opportunities for foley effects.

Lessons learned

The play represents a new directorial approach for Dr. Gantar, who has been teaching at Dalhousie University since 1992. “Usually when you do a show, there’s always pieces that you’ve seen elsewhere. You teach appropriation as an artistic strategy,” he says. “In this particular case, none of us have ever seen it [before].”

One of the biggest innovations is the technique required of the performers. Not only is the acting in a specific Expressionist style, but it also needs to be suitable for being viewed through a screen.

“I’m finding that because you don’t have to block the whole body, but only parts of it, you pay much more attention to details,” notes Dr. Gantar. One example he gives is about how the actors simulate a change in their position. “The actors never sit down, ever. They stand the whole play, no one lies [down], but their attitude is as if they were sitting down. So the actor drops her shoulder, and because you only see [the top part of her body], it looks like she just sat down.”

Somers, a fourth-year Theatre Studies student, views the production as an important learning opportunity.

“I wasn't sure what to expect from helping to create a digital piece of theatre, but I was happy to find I wasn't entirely like a fish out of water. It takes a lot more thinking ahead than the kind of live exploration I'm used to, but it's been a really valuable thing to try and work through.”

That feeling Somers speaks to ¬– the fear of being out-of-place in a world dominated by the encroachment of technology – is right at home in a play like Machinal.

Embracing progress

Ultimately, Dr. Gantar hopes that audiences will appreciate the novel experience as much as the production team does.

“I hope that they’ll get caught up in a different way of telling a narrative. I hope they’ll figure out that there’s many ways of telling a story, and that you can go outside the box and be creative in an approach. You don’t have to expect something predictable.”

Machinal can be viewed for free from December 1 to 5 through Vimeo.


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