Welcome to the Machine – SBCC’s Theater Group ventures into Expressionist drama with ‘Machinal’

David Bazemore Photo
David Bazemore Photo

In 1927, housewife Ruth Snyder conspired with her lover Henry Judd Gray to murder her husband and collect the insurance money. The following trial became a media sensation, as the public was baying for blood.

Among others, filmmaker D.W. Griffith and author Damon Runyon covered the trial. On the day of Snyder’s execution, a photographer snuck in and grabbed a disturbing, iconic image as she died in the electric chair at Sing Sing.

One journalist who covered the trial, Sophie Treadwell, turned around and created “Machinal,” opening onstage a year later. Treadwell, a fearless journalist who was one of the only to interview Pancho Villa, did not produce a work of exploitation to cash in.

Instead, Machinal portrays a woman trapped in an alienating society, with murder as a foolish way out. The case also influenced two other masterpieces: James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Britain’s National Theater revived the play in 1993. And now SBCC’s Theater Group brings Treadwell’s play to its Interim Theatre tonight.

The first question that must be asked of director Katie Laris is this: With this play and her production of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide” (also from 1928), does she have a thing for the Roaring ’20s?

“It’s totally a coincidence,” she says. “I’ve known this play for years, but I was reminded of it by Jonathan Fox (of Ensemble Theater) who directed it in New Jersey.”

As for “The Suicide,” that play nearly killed Laris, she says.

“It was brutal,” she says. “In that small space with 17 actors onstage for an hour. It was almost impossible.”

So it’s a bit of a relief to have only 14 actors onstage in smaller groups, she says, although most people wouldn’t see the difference. And “Machinal” is about sex and violence, not existential angst.

“Sex and violence is easy to direct,” she says.

The challenge is in the acting style. “Machinal” was an example of expressionist theater and a broad, iconic style that audiences know from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Metropolis.” The form finds Laris telling her actors to think like robots. “The Terminator” (and all its sequels) has been referenced more than once.

“This play is very modern in structure,” she says. “With nine separate episodes with one-word titles, snapshots of this woman’s life. It’s very different from plays of the period and decades afterward.”

With a sympathetic heroine, Laris does see the play as feminist, to a point.

“I see (the lead character) as the soul of the artist, of someone who cannot submit to the banal expectations of everybody around her.” But with no choices or outlets for this woman, the path can only be insanity and murder.

For the role of the lead “Young Woman,” Laris has cast Megan Connors, who came to SBCC from Northern Arizona University. This is her first SBCC production.

The student actors — ranging from their teens to their 60s — have sunken their teeth into the material, as strange as it might seem to them. It’s clear that Laris has given them a glimpse at an America both modern and far away at the same time, like another world.

“I think we live in much more conservative times than the 1920s, I’m sad to say,” she says, with a slight sigh.

‘MACHINAL’
When: 8p.m. Thursday through Sunday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: SBCC’s Interim Theatre, 721 Cliff Drive
Cost: $15 general, $12 seniors and SBCC staff, $8 students
Information: (805) 965-5935

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