At this time of the year, many people enjoy celebrating Halloween by being creeped out of their minds. Some enjoy cheesy slasher movies while others like to binge on The Walking Dead, and some religiously attend local spook houses such as Rock Island's Skellington Manor. Yet the most haunting, and even the creepiest, experience I have had in a long time happened at Augustana College's latest theatrical exploration of social justice: Machinal.
A French word which means mechanical or automatic, Machinal is loosely based on the sensationalistic 1928 murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who, along with her lover, murdered her husband. This expressionistic play by Sophie Treadwell explores the psyche of a young, naïve woman who becomes so disenfranchised by the machinations of society that her one chance at freedom lies in murdering her automaton husband, rather than merely hurting him emotionally through divorce.
Augustana's production of Machinal is one of the most complete productions I have seen in the Quad Cities this year. From the pacing of the dialogue to the texture of the set to each actor's make-up, every component of the performance appears to have been thoughtfully selected to bring depth and understanding to the story. With the dexterity of a master mechanic, director Jennifer Popple takes every aspect of this machine into consideration and presents a captivating and eerie performance.
The heart of this engine is a newcomer to the Augie stage: Evanston, Illinois native Christine Broughton. Her portrayal of Helen, the young woman whose life is a gear that turns in the opposite direction of the societal machine, is depressingly beautiful. Helen's emotional range must span from the absolute desperation she feels is her destiny to the spiritual rebirth experienced through her illicit affair, and Brougton smoothly transitions Helen from a Tourette's-like quality (exhibited in her spontaneous twitching) as she fights conformity to a broken soul who has been gifted with a cathartic lover, and finally back to a Stepford wife.
As Helen's boss and subsequent husband George H. Jones, Keenan Odenkirk, in his portrayal, suggests a Disney-Imagineered android. His manufactured smile and stilted yet measured line deliveries provided some of the audience's uncomfortable laughter during Saturday's performance. Odenkirk's husband never speaks to Helen as an equal or even a lover, as evidenced on their wedding night when he commands her to undress and then questions why she would flinch when he caresses her.
The consummation of their marriage transitions on-stage into an agonizing and traumatic childbirth, then followed by a postpartum depression that ultimately drives Helen to covertly visit a speakeasy with one of her husband's employees. It is there she meets the man who provides her with a glimpse of passion and freedom, seducing her that night, and Debo Balogun plays the lover as comfortably as one would slip on a pair of worn blue jeans. He quickly moves from being a two-dimensional "player" to the Valium that relaxes Helen's anxiety and intoxicates her physically and emotionally, and Balogun's natural and authentic interpretation brought some of the most human qualities to this intentionally mechanized production.
Susan Holgersson's asymmetrical set design is a unique and inventive apparatus, one made to look and function like the inner workings of some antiquated timepiece or engine. The four main platforms that make up the major playing areas are designed to look like gears with tank-like tracks extending from cog to cog. Each gear has some inventive ways of transforming the acting area from an office to a courtroom to a kitchen, et cetera, and at one point, oversized bolts screw into the platforms to create tables for the speakeasy. Geometric screens on stages right and left allow for Andy Gutshall's stark and moody lighting to further the story at key times through silhouette.
Unique to this production is the character of The Overseer as played by Caleb Ivey, a young man best known throughout the Augustana community for his abilities as a beatboxer. Ivey's vocal-percussion talents provided more than just an interesting gimmick, as his Overseer became the sound of the societal machine and added a level of aural expressionism that likely has not been created for a prior production of Machinal. His on-stage presence was also, at times, compassionately organic, juxtaposed as he was against his function as the machine's main component.
Make no mistake: This show deals with some tough issues, such as depression, suffrage, interracial relations, and murder. It is definitely for mature audiences. However, Machinal is a wonderfully expressionistic example of how theatre can be entertaining, educational, and enlightening, and hopefully Augustana's Potter Theatre will be filled with audience members who want a little something more in their haunting this Halloween.
[Editor's note: Author Jeff Ashcraft will be contributing reviews alongside the Reader's other new local-theatre correspondents Dee Canfield, Heather Herkelman, Victoria Navarro, and Brent Tubbs.]
Machinal runs at Augustana College's Potter Theatre (Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts, 3701 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) through October 25, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 or visiting Augustana.edu/arts.