ST. PETER -- As the actors took a five-minute break from rehearsals on Monday, Anderson Theatre once again seemed populated by human beings.
A costume designer asked about some faulty suspender straps. One of the actors loudly and humorously cursed the inertia that prevented him from moving a large set piece. Another young man crooned a few bars from a song while several others made small talk in the wings.
But when the stage manager called for actors to resume their places and begin from the top, the lights dimmed and the opening scene unfurled with the industrial sounds of whirs, cranks and bells. Actors entered the stage from all sides, wordless and mechanized, as if caught in a looped pantomime of their daily job duties. A soundscape of typewriters and filing drawers filled the theatre. Humans were replaced with automatons who criss-crossed the stage with hardly a glance in another's direction.
"The machine sort of overwhelms the humanity," said Amy Seham, the Gustavus Adolphus College theatre instructor who is directing "Machinal," Sophie Treadwell's masterpiece of American Expressionism that opens today at the college.
"It's about how we resist being absorbed into this machine of what you're expected to be."
Treadwell was an innovative writer and journalist in the early to mid-20th century who was one of America's first female war correspondents. Though perhaps underappreciated in her lifetime, Treadwell's works have enjoyed a recent revival -- especially "Machinal." When the play debuted on Broadway in 1928, legendary New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson called it a "triumph of individual distinction, gleaming with intangible beauty."
Even in the case of Gustavus' production, Atkinson is right on both accounts.
The play is inspired by the real-life murder trial of Ruth Snyder. The spotlight of a verifiable media circus, Snyder was convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair for conspiring with her lover in the murder of her husband, whom she detested. Treadwell was present for the trial and "Machinal's" heroine, the everywoman Helen, follows a similar narrative arc.
Working as a stenographer in a busy office, Helen is extended an offer of marriage by the rapacious owner of the company. Giving in to her own illusions as well as societal pressures, she reluctantly acquiesces. After suffering an isolating and suffocating existence as an employee, wife and mother, Helen begins to shed the cultural anchors that keep her moored to a dissatisfying life.
"Helen is an everywoman who is buffeted on all sides by the forces of society, the business world and sexual politics," Seham said. "The challenge is, how do we show the audience how these people have become so mechanized."
To that effect, Gustavus junior Anna Michel designed a soundtrack punctuated by the din of machines and motorized devices. The framework for the set, too, is angular and minimalistic with only an octagonal centerpiece and four tiered wedges that form a surrounding platform.
Gustavus senior Rush Benson choreographed much of the performance. Seham praised his work for creating "very interesting and innovative" movements that convey a sense of mechanization and isolation.
Yet, Seham insists the play isn't entirely despondent.
Observers will note how the technical elements underscore the inner turmoil on stage. And audiences will even find moments of passion and self-expression, especially in the scenes between Helen and her lover.
"It's not just a gloomy show," Seham said. "There is still a lot of color and action."
HED: If You Go BOLD: What 'Machinal' BOLD: When 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday. Also, 2 p.m. on Sunday BOLD: Where Gustavus Adolphe College BOLD: Admission Free