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“Machinal” is a gear-grinding claustrophobic nightmare

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer


(Disclaimer: this review touches on the topics of suicide and depression. Please proceed with caution.)


Last Thursday, I went to see “Machinal” at the Nazarian Center. This would be my first time seeing a theatrical play on the RIC Campus, so I was super excited. I was unprepared for the shrieking bombshell of a production that “Machinal” would turn out to be. It hit me like a truck and left me shaking by the end. Sophie Treadwell’s “Machinal” is a bizarre fusion of Kafka’s “The Trial” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It is a surreal, haunting play about a woman desperately trying to break free of the shackles placed on her by society. Her struggle to claw her way out of this monotonous pit is heartbreaking to witness. Machinal is based on the story of Ruth Snyder, who in 1928 was put on trial for a murder she committed the previous year. She was found guilty and executed via electric chair.


Watching the journey of Helen, a young female stenographer going through the same routine every day, desperately trying and failing to make her voice heard by the people around her, it felt:


SLAM! The gavel of the court crashed against the podium, leaving me shellshocked.

Image via Ric.edu

HRRF: The sound of breathing on someone’s neck as they were engulfed by a subway crowd made me shift uncomfortably in my seat.


The aforementioned sequence of loud startling noises playing out before my eyes kept them rooted on the stage. Said stage was littered with squares and other angular geometric shapes, no doubt representative of the box that Helen is undoubtedly trapped in. My brain couldn’t focus on anything other than the events of the story. The play had a 1920’s backdrop and veneer of sophistication seen in “The Great Gatsby.” However, the robotic movements and behavior of the characters that made them seem less human, along with the crushing atmosphere, was reminiscent of “The Trial.”


Maybe that’s why it hit me as hard as it did. “The Trial” was such a deliberately tedious and painful slog through an inhospitable bureaucratic mess that even now, years after I finished it, the reading, typing or hearing of the word “bureaucracy” conjures images of it inside my head. This time, “Machinal” made me think of it far more vividly. The hopeless nature of its setting is very much Kafkaesque.


Furthermore, seeing the walls close in on Helen, I thought back to the times in my life when I felt like the same thing was happening to me, those moments when I was struggling to fit in and be understood. Let me just clarify that I have a loving family that I care deeply for, including two amazing parents, but in telling the following story, I’m in no way implicating or faulting them with anything that happened. I am autistic and when I was younger, I had a difficult time finding acceptance because of it.


When I was younger, my father called me down one morning so he could teach me how to make waffles. I had just woken up and didn’t want to make waffles but I didn’t say anything. Not wanting to potentially upset him, I let him continue on with the lesson. However, once he put the batter in the waffle iron and closed the lid, I realized I had had enough. I opened the drawer under the counter, grabbed the scissors and pointed them blade first at my chest. My dad told me sternly to put them down and it was only after a few moments of uncertainty that I complied. Frustrated, I stormed back up to my room. We never finished the lesson. Just like Ruth, I was an outsider trying to fight back against a society hellbent on forcing me to conform to what was expected and considered normal. I didn’t fit the mold and that bothered people.


I suppose there’s only one way to sum up my experience seeing “Machinal”-


ZZZAP!


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