Paper Chairs' debut looks great but doesn't keep this drama revved at full speed
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., June 4, 2010
Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd., www.paperchairs.com
Through June 13
Running time: 2 hr,, 10 min.
Sophie Treadwell's Machinal is a bold choice for a new company. The expressionist play seeks to shock and dismay the audience – not in the sense of "Oh my goodness, she's naked and bleeding from the eyeballs," but more like, "These sounds, images, and ideas are causing me deep discomfort." Machinal suggests that the mainstream world is cold and machinelike, and to survive and thrive within it, one must act as a part of the greater mechanism. The play shows what happens to one sad woman who is never able to fall into lockstep with the rest of the world.
Under Dustin Wills' direction, this production of Machinal is, to borrow the machine metaphor from the script, one in which certain components are top-notch but the overall engineering doesn't produce the ideal engine. The play is cast smartly, and the ensemble does solid work. The set and costumes are full of great detail. All the same, the production is like a music box that didn't get enough cranks before the show started. The high energy as the show opens is exciting, but after intermission, the pace falters. Actors' delivery sags. I saw the show on opening night, when it's possible the company needed more rehearsal. Clearly, the goal was precision timing and coordination, but latches were fumbled and props knocked askew.
Part of the problem is the set and how they work with it. Designer Lisa Laratta has covered the stage in doors of all sizes, shapes, colors, and varieties. It's nifty to watch the actors pull pieces from the floor and hide them again after a scene is through, but some of the doors are heavy and clumsy to handle. Moreover, since the knobs, hinges, handles, and rope pulls are three-dimensional, the stage is littered with tripping hazards for the actors. (The audience, too: Several people tripped on the pipelike wire guard on the floor as they walked to the far side of the seating area.) When the goal is to have five people slam a door shut at the same time, any missed cue stands out sorely.
It's also true that Machinal is a hard show to do well. Helen Jones, the central character, is a woman who does not fit into the cogs and wheels of daily modern life. She's a sensitive, frightened dreamer who, after a single, brief spell of happiness, snaps and commits a terrible crime. Ideally, the audience is supposed to sympathize with her and understand how she gets to a point where she makes a hugely irrational and violent choice, but the show doesn't get you there. In Chase Crossno's performance, Helen's dominant characteristics are uncertainty and fear, and those are tough to play actively. She's a weak character, and unfortunately, she is so distant that she appears remote to the audience as well. It's never apparent that she has the capacity to snap and turn violent.
If anything, the show is an example of how a strong cast and a cool concept don't always mean success. Paper Chairs is a new company, although its members have worked together before with great results. One hopes that they will continue to produce work in Austin. There is much talent here; the company simply needs a little more time to grease its engines.