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Unmasking Machinal

By Arlenis Marmolejos

The cast of “Machinal” opening scene. (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

The Purchase Acting Company 48 premiered a new production of the play “Machinal” written by Sophie Treadwell and directed by international master teacher Budi Miller from Dec. 1 to Dec. 9.

In Treadwell’s classic expressionist drama written in 1928, the narrative unfolds around the real-life case of executed murderer Ruth Snyder, a young woman who encountered constraints of capitalism and society. Miller’s rendition of the play was staged in the Center for Media, Film, and Theatre (CMFT) Building, for a duration of 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission.

“Expressionist theatre forces you to be diverse when telling a story,” Miller said. “It opens many avenues to describe one’s intersection whether it be race, gender or culture.”

While collaborating with the senior class Acting Company 48, Miller incorporated elements from his own theatre company, The Theatre of Others, by fostering a “communal environment” and delving into the play’s intricacies when featuring Balinese mask work in six weeks.

The production consisted of nine distinct scenes.

George Jones demonstrated his pursuit of the young woman in their workplace. (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

In the first scene, “To Business,” student actress Kate West portrayed a young woman employed as a stenographer at George H. Jones & Co. Proposed to by her supervisor, the woman grapples with societal expectations as her coworkers gossip and pass judgment on her lifestyle.

“At Home,” the second scene, dives into the protagonist’s inner challenges when debating whether to accept the marriage proposal. However, in a moment of apparent mania, the young woman briefly threatens her mother, played by Bella Rodriguez, but later apologizes, ultimately agreeing to marry for her mother’s comfort.

The woman’s marriage developed as a difficult and constraining experience in the third scene, “Honeymoon,” when Geroge Jones, the supervisor and now husband portrayed by Daniel Madigan, pressured his wife for intimacy.

Kate West playing the young woman suffering from motherhood after giving birth. (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

In a hospital room, the “Maternal” scene shows the young woman nearly catatonic, as she listens to the physicians discuss her childbirth while forcing her to view her newborn baby.

As time passes, the fifth scene “Prohibited,” set at a speakeasy reveals the young woman, now played by Ryley St. Rose-Finear, is introduced to a man played by Amani Kojo, to whom she confides about her marriage. The man, in turn, reveals a violent past in Mexico and persuades her to join him at his apartment.

Following this is the sixth scene “Intimate” where the young woman’s decision to be intimate with the man reflects her pursuit of personal agency and a departure from the oppressive influences in her life, particularly her marriage to Jones.

The actresses portraying the young woman including Kate West, Rylee St. Rose-Finear, and Kelsey Collins united on stage before killing George Jones.  (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

In the seventh scene “Domestic,” the focus shifts as the young woman endures the pressures imposed on women within the confines of a traditional home, and in drastic action, she murders her husband.

Kelsey Collins playing the young woman convicted for her husband’s murder. (Photos by Arlenis Marmolejos)

In the eighth scene, “The Law,” the narrative centers on Kelsey Collins portraying the young woman as she confronts the legal repercussions of murdering her husband in a courtroom setting. Leo Osborn takes on the role of the woman’s defense attorney, but the prosecutor, played by Jamie McQuagge, succeeds in proving her guilt.

The press reported the young woman’s execution as popcorn vendors entertained the event. (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

The ninth scene and final scene, “The Machine,” explores the young woman’s ultimate fate within the societal machinery, reflecting the relentless nature of societal forces that shape and control one’s destiny. The woman faced execution by the electric chair after being convicted of the murder.

Despite facing “limited resources,” Miller infused his inspiration from Bali by incorporating theater as a spiritual practice throughout the production. The innovation of having hand-made masks required a shift in body movement to bring the fixed image of a mask to life.

“If the body doesn’t animate, the mask doesn’t animate; it gives the actor a visceral experience and sensation where it feels like you transform into another part of yourself, which can be the given circumstance of the character,” said Miller.

Osborn described the play’s preparation as “pretty intense,” yet overall “such a wonderful experience.” He added, “Since most of us wear masks for at least part of the show, a lot of our work has been related to really getting in our bodies, which has been incredibly physically demanding, but also so very rewarding!”

“Art has always been a very spiritual thing for me personally, and being able to share that in an artistic space not hindered by the confines of organized religion has been really beautiful,” said Osborn.

Collins explained how the play is an “iconic feminist work” that was a “surprisingly fun show for such heavy subject matter.” She noted how “Budi Miller has a very unconventional process which has pushed us all and we’ve grown to love.”

Catherine Posillico, an arts management major, expressed her fondness for the masks and characterized the overall play as “camp.” She found a lot of the choices to be “unexpected and out-of-the-ordinary,” with each scene featuring a “slightly striking” element at times.

The cast celebrated the young woman’s death and taunted her struggle in a capitalist society by throwing money at the audience. (Photo by Arlenis Marmolejos)

Posillico highlighted that the most exciting moment for her was when the actors engaged with the audience by distributing free popcorn and wore “hilarious” “She’s dead!” t-shirts at the end of the play, while celebrating the execution.

Francesca Villani, a theatre technology major, had “preconceived notions about the show after reading the original play” for one of her classes. While she appreciated the lighting design and costumes, she expressed uncertainty about how well the choice to incorporate masks aligned with the overall production.

On the contrary, Ben Lipkin, a new media and media studies double major, found the play “really exciting,” naming it their favorite production seen on campus.

“I enjoyed how it was more abstract and experimental, but used narrative fragments with well-considered direction to bring what is a really different time period’s art to life in the context of contemporary theater,” said Lipkin.

“I love the fact that Purchase does different productions, I haven’t seen anything like this done here before,” said Posillico.



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