In the opening minutes of Machinal, the mesmerizing Mary Tuomanen leans forward to pick up a single lily that lies alone on the vast, empty stage floor. With her delicate, translucent beauty and her graceful movements, the image might be drawn from 19th century ballet.
Drink in the languidly poetic loveliness while you can, dear audience.
From here on, the world of Machinal — as captured in Brenna Geffers visually stunning, immersive production — is a twitchy, juddering, altogether overwhelming place. The flowers that continue to surround the Young Woman (that’s Tuomanen) soon represent ugly omens — bloody roses strewn on her marriage bed, or a wilted bouquet that serves as a weapon. As with Shakespeare’s Ophelia, this Young Women’s “fantastic garlands” presage something terrible.
Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play is based on a once-famous murder case. Today, the details — a wife and her lover plot to kill her husband — sound tawdry and familiar, but Treadwell’s fictional adaptation portrayed the woman with insight, understanding, and even some sympathy. Treadwell’s script is also notable for its taut, punchy language — her early experience as a journalist shows here.
That language is further tightened up by Geffers, whose vision of the play is visceral and nightmarish — a hermetically sealed universe. Machinal incorporates expressionist elements — here, Geffers pushes them to full-on expressionism and beyond. Movement is highly stylized, sometimes recalling the modern dance vocabulary of Mary Wigman and others.
And yet, even in this mechanized world, the human dimension stands out. Machinal is an ensemble piece, with many of the cast playing multiple roles — everybody is terrific and fully committed to Geffers’ vision, with particularly good work by Ross Beschler and Chris Anthony. But the evening really belongs to Tuomanen, who is simply remarkable. In a performance that initially appears almost casual, she manages to capture the Young Woman’s many contradictions — soft-spoken yet fierce, sympathetic yet off-putting, ordinary yet utterly extraordinary.
Kudos also to Thom Weaver’s production design — a Herculean project where every element works together. (The sound design is particularly evocative.)
Occasionally, I found the dance-like movement too much, as in the hyperextended final scene, which should be simpler and faster. Sometimes, I wished for a more human take on the play and in particular, on the Young Woman. But much of the work here is sensational, with many stage pictures I’ll remember for months, even years to come.
At EgoPo, Geffers, Weaver, Tuomanen and company have taken a nearly 90 year old play, and turned it into the freshest, most daring show in town.
Machinal runs through May 8. For more information, visit the EgoPo Classic Theater website.