MACHINAL

by Mary Shen Barnidge
Windy City Times

Actress Mechelle Moe has a soft, almost babylike, face—not the classical features we usually associate with High Tragedy. Certainly a visage unlikely to make her the first choice for a heroine required to suffer horribly in, literally, eight scenes out of nine. But in the course of her portrayal of a humble woman trapped by a merciless society, an array of expressions as vivid and varied as a gallery of Greek masks impose themselves on Moe’s countenance until, by the final moments, we desperately turn our eyes elsewhere, fearing to look upon such excruciation as that which besets her character, lest our emotional response exceed the limits permitted by aesthetic distance.

She doesn’t do it all by herself, of course. Author Sophie Treadwell pulls no punches in her depiction of a humble office dronette forced by family obligations to marry a man she loathes and later murders in a burst of liberative passion. Treadwell, herself a journalist and war correspondent, reveals the poignant cruelty lurking beneath the so-called “roaring twenties” (in a crowded speakeasy, a young woman is pressured by her boyfriend to have an abortion, and a homosexual male courts a young hustler—all pretty lurid stuff in 1928).

Sean Graney’s direction likewise reflects the turmoil of the play’s protagonist. Her environment is a swarm of frenzied activity, and her manic soliloquies as adrenally abbreviated as a Kenneth Fearing poem. These sensory fusillades serve to intensify the play’s few intimate moments—her tryst with a mercenary soldier who tells of once using a bottle filled with rocks to kill his captor, and her later contemplation of her husband and the gravel in a potted houseplant. Joe Fosco’s meticulous arrangement of Kevin O’Donnel’s seamless original score, much of it performed live by cellist Nicole LeGette, heightens our empathy even as Michael Corrigan’s cinematic sequences dilute it. Kurt Ehrmann lends a piscine repugnance to the role of Our Girl’s soul-suffocating husband, Ryan Bollettino makes an unexpectedly romantic Soldier-Of-Fortune, and Shawn Yardley makes a case for the mother whose care necessitates her daughter’s servitude. But Moe’s riveting performance is itself reason enough to make the lonely trek to Chicago Dramatists.