So Much Noise

An impressive production, but something gets lost.

by Cary M. Mazer


Villanova Theatre, Ithan & Lancaster Aves., Villanova, Dec. 1- 6, 610-519-7474


Machine Heads: Lloyd and Kutzer in Machinal.

Sounds are important in Sophie Treadwell's 1928 Expressionist play, Machinal. It's not just the sounds of the machines that surround the central character, the "Young Woman" - the typewriters, adding machines, phonographs, pneumatic drills, etc., that entrap her and drive her to make increasingly dire life-and-death decisions. It's also the sounds of the people around her. The Young Woman is always isolated and yet never alone, surrounded on all sides by other people: in her office, in the adjacent tenement apartments, outside the window of her honeymoon suite, around her hospital bed after she has given birth, at other tables at the speakeasy, outside the window of her lover's one-room apartment (where an organ grinder is playing "Cielito Lindo"), in other cells on death row, there are always crowds of people, who speak precisely scripted lines and make precisely scripted noises.

At Villanova, director James J. Christy accentuates the Young Woman's isolation by bringing these people onstage, even when the script keeps them just off - the Young Woman (Nancy Kutzer) is surrounded by metal grates (in the angular and metallic sets by Nick Embree) that close her in and yet leave her totally exposed, while the people who populate her urban nightmare world crowd around her. The effect is almost more hyper-realistic than expressionistic, the gritty and mundane rendered rhythmic and discordantly musical.

This hyper-realism changes over the course of the evening, as we watch the Young Woman go on her pilgrimage from reluctant sexually harassed employee to reluctant bride to reluctant mother to reluctant adulteress to reluctant murderer. The first sign of Expressionism in the production is the entrance of her employer/future husband/future victim, George H. Jones (Benjamin Lloyd), who struts onto the stage in a three-piece suit, two-tone shoes and ash-gray makeup, like a skinhead version of the little millionaire on the Monopoly board. When we next see him, on their wedding night, he's wearing a Phantom of the Opera-like half-mask. Slowly the world becomes more and more grotesque around the Young Woman until, by the end of the play, the two-inch platform shoes worn by most of the actors have become foot-high stilts, their shoulder pads have widened, and the voices of the judge and the journalists at the Young Woman's murder trial become amplified and distorted.

By the time the Young Woman ascends to the electric chair, Christy and his designers (most notably the sound designer, Peter Rydberg) pull out all the stops. It's over-the-top awesome, and it's great fun…if the story of a browbeaten murderess can be called fun.

But with all the fog machines and masks and stilts, something gets lost: the story of the Young Woman. And Kutzer's admirable performance, which has gone from whining panic to a wonderful vampish nastiness as she contemplates killing her husband, gets drowned out by the sheer noisiness of it all.

And so the Young Woman, having been victimized by her office workers, by her boss, by her mother (Deborah Braak), by her doctor, by her lawyers, and by her lover (Michael Toolan-Roche), has one more victimizer to add to the roster: the production.