at Chicago Dramatists

Theaters used to be lively places, unofficial forums for issues of the day. Aristophanes regularly skewered his contemporaries, whether politicians, poets, or philosophers. And 19th-century French audiences took their theater so seriously that brawls broke out between those who favored conventional approaches and those who liked aesthetic innovation.

Today we’re much more polite at openings–and most productions come across as stuffed and mounted, like the glass-eyed animals you find in cases at the Field Museum. Sometimes it seems that the only difference between shows is the quality of the taxidermy. And as sports, television, and movies have captured the partisans in our midst, there have been fewer and fewer scripts written that are even worth preserving.

One of Chicago’s most talented taxidermists is Sean Graney, who has an uncanny ability to dust off shows considered daring a generation or two ago and make them seem shocking and new again. Last season his lively, funny version of Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist drama Rhinoceros made me realize there’s more to this play than the rather obvious comic allegory. And Graney’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1933 surrealist tragicomedy Blood Wedding gave me a new appreciation for the emotional radicalism of this playwright’s opaque dreamscapes.

Tackling Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionist drama Machinal for the Hypocrites, Graney once again proves equal to the task of lifelike embalming. Together with an army of collaborators–including filmmaker Michael Corrigan, composer Kevin O’Donnell, sound designer Joseph Fosco, and cello player Nicole LeGett–he’s done a fabulous job of making the play seem as relevant today as when it opened on Broadway 75 years ago. And that’s saying a lot, because even just three generations ago theater was more alive than it is today. It seems remarkable now that such an experimental work could have been produced on America’s most visible theatrical street at all: each of the play’s nine discrete scenes has a different tone, and the language and story are intentionally fragmented.

In this protofeminist, protoexistential work, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage turns to murder to escape. Combining the themes of the treatment of women in American culture and the loss of individuality in an increasingly mechanized society, Treadwell blends the techniques of German expressionism and American naturalism in the style of her playwriting contemporaries, especially Eugene O’Neill in Strange Interlude and Elmer Rice in The Adding Machine. And Treadwell’s arguments against capital punishment hit hard at a time when execution-happy conservatives are still pushing to control the judicial system.

There are superficial similarities between Machinal and Maurine Dallas Watkins’s 1926 play Chicago, subsequently remade into a Kander and Ebb musical and most recently into a film. True, the expressionism of Chicago in its current versions comes not from Watkins’s conventional script but from the nuances provided by the score and Bob Fosse’s stark choreography. But both plays address the increasing power women had in society, politically and economically, and the ambivalence this power inspired. At one turning point in Treadwell’s story, her protagonist overcomes her passivity and cries out, “I will not submit! I will not submit!” Both Chicago and Machinal are based on actual criminal cases. Watkins distilled her story from the trials of two Chicago women, both of whom shot their lovers and were remarkably, even comically cold-blooded about it (20-year-old Beulah Annan played a record on the gramophone over and over while her lover bled to death at her feet). Treadwell based Machinal on the much publicized story of a Long Island housewife accused in 1927 of conspiring with her lover to murder her husband.

The milieu of the play–lower-middle-class America in the 1920s–is familiar. And it’s one mark of Graney’s brilliance as a director that he uses our knowledge of the setting to full advantage. We’ve seen the dreary world of Treadwell’s protagonist before: the nine-to-five prison of clerical work, the bare apartment with paper-thin walls, the toxic relationships based more on need than on love. Acting as set designer as well as director, Graney implies even more than this with the addition of a prop or two, sometimes intentionally anachronistic. The tiny beat-up television that sits in the middle of a rickety kitchen table tells us all we need to know about our heroine’s restricted worldview and nearly empty bank account. Corrigan’s montages of images from the 20s and 30s intercut with more contemporary shots in factories and along the Chicago lakefront serve a similar purpose, providing historical context and, in some cases, the emotional tone missing from Treadwell’s intentionally spare script.

In this production, as in Graney’s other stagings, his greatest asset is the ability to coax first-rate performances from a non-Equity cast. Those who’ve seen Mechelle Moe’s fine but hardly inspired work in past Hypocrites shows will not be prepared for the intense, multilayered performance she delivers as the young woman. From the moment she enters–a drooping, beaten-down office drudge–she’s utterly fascinating. Later, after she’s faced one setback after another–dull marriage, faithless lover, kangaroo-court trial–she rises up, wronged by the world and angry. Moe’s performance in the final scene is one of the most riveting I’ve seen this season.

In fact Graney’s tight, disciplined ensemble adeptly negotiates every line of Treadwell’s poetic dialogue and all the twists in her sometimes difficult script. Machinal is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, coolly distant and violently intense. These actors field everything Treadwell can throw at them.

So much goes right in Graney’s production that I found myself wishing he’d lived at a time less congenial to museum pieces, when he might have had the chance to train his considerable firepower on something new. True, Machinal hasn’t been produced in Chicago since the early 90s, but an on-line search reveals that ever since this once neglected play’s high-profile remount at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1990, it’s been done often by theaters and university departments around the country.

I know I should be happy that Graney has been able to create such a vigorous, creative multimedia version of Treadwell’s play. But I can’t get out of my head the fact that it premiered on Broadway 75 years ago. A play this daring wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance there today, and powerful directors like Graney are stuck with the leftovers from more vibrant times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sarah Hadley.