BWW Review: MACHINAL Proves Rollins College Is One of Orlando's Best Theatre Companies

One of the reasons that I especially enjoy going to quality collegiate theatre is that, while these programs want to have as many people in the audience as possible, for obvious exposure and financial reasons, they are far more focused on presenting interesting and challenging works that prepare their students for whatever artistic careers they eventually pursue. Rollins College's production of MACHINAL, running through February 21st, will not be for everyone, but thankfully, director and Department Chair Dr. David Charles has larger goals in mind for this program.

Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL is an Expressionistic look at one young woman's search for love and freedom in the 1920s; a search that ultimately might lead to tragic consequences. The highly-stylized show is enveloped in a sense of melancholy that always seems to be teetering on the edge of madness. In our era of realistic dramas, the show's style and dreary synopsis might scare off a certain segment of The Annie Russell Theatre's traditional audience. However, that would be a tremendous loss for those individuals.

Though the show is nearly 87 years old, its themes of individuality, female empowerment, and mental health are likely more relevant now than they've ever been. However, the single strongest draw to this production is its remarkable central performance of Rachel Comeau as Young Woman. The entire play is seen through this character's somewhat disturbed eyes. Young Woman's view of her world is bleak and desperate, but as Comeau peels away more and more layers from her character, we begin to realize that Young Woman's perspective is extremely unreliable. By the time Comeau delivers one of the most stunning monologues that I've ever witnessed towards the end of the first act, it is clear that Young Woman is suffering from an undiagnosed case of depression, or perhaps an even more dangerous psychosis.

With her silent film star beauty and piercing eyes, Comeau has created a woman that is simultaneously haunted and haunting. Simply said, I have seen hundreds of plays in my life, if not more, and Comeau's performance is easily one of the best that I have ever seen at any level. She takes an incredibly complex and demanding character and creates a woman who is heart-breaking on every imaginable level.

Outside of Comeau, the rest of the cast is used as interchangeable cogs in the machine that is constantly grinding Young Woman down. The opening of the show clearly sets up this machinal metaphor as the majority of the cast populates the stage in a choreographed procession of intersecting lines (from choreographer, senior Amy L. Sullivan). The harshness of the device would have been more effective if the marching had been more hurried and precise, but nonetheless the visual sets the stage for the oppressive tone that the show takes thereafter.

Young Woman's life is full of disappointments and sacrifices, until she meets Elie Gottlieb's Lover. Gottlieb exudes an unmistakable presence that separates the aptly named character from the rest of the people in Young Woman's life. The instant connection that Young Woman and Lover have transforms her from a depressed wife and mother into a person who believes that she is finally able to achieve the things that she has only dreamed about before.

While the entire cast is uniformly strong, there are a few actors who deliver captivating performances. Christopher Stewart is disconcertedly threatening as Husband, and while Young Woman's perspective on him won't allow us to sympathize with him, Stewart offers a glimpse of who the man behind Young Woman's point of view is. Ana Suarez's performance as Mother is so overbearing that you can begin to understand how Young Woman's psyche became so fragile; and Andee Atkins' Telephone Girl provides some much needed humor to an otherwise desolate play.

The only aspects of MACHINAL that I wasn't completely taken with were in the design. Rollins' senior Rebecca Kleinman's set was comprised of numerous multi-purpose stone-like pieces that didn't seem to fit with the over-arching machinal theme. The other design choice that I questioned was the makeup. The concept, from senior Alexandra Feliciano, was to visually represent the way that Young Woman felt about the people in her life. However, instead of looking like the grotesque monsters of her imagination, the pale pastel design makes them look more like birds.

That being typed, the color palate of set and costume design (by junior Angelica Trombo) were very appropriate. The occasional bursts of color were striking against the wash of greys and beiges.

Even though the second act of the show was a little slow, it maintains the definitively unsettling Kafkaesque vibe that Comeau begins in her very first scene. Another of the highlights is Isabella Ward's performance as the dancing version of Young Woman. In her all too brief moments on stage in this role, she adds an even deeper level of understanding to the soul of Young Woman.

If you are intrigued by intelligent, thought-provoking theatre, you do not want to miss Rollins College's production of MACHINAL. Again, Rollins College's Department of Theatre and Dance has proven that it is not only one of Central Florida's best collegiate theatre companies, but one of its best theatre companies period. To get your tickets, visit the Annie Russell Theatre website or call the box office at 407-646-2145.

Did you venture into the dreary world of this Young Woman? Were you as captivated by these college performers as I was? Share your thoughts on Rollins College's MACHINAL in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter. You can also chat with me on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Photo Credit:
1) Nicholas Damiano, Rachel Comeau, Ryan Roberson, and James Blaisdell | Tony Firriolo
2) Rachel Comeau and Christopher Stewart | Tony Firriolo
3) Bailey DeVoe and Isabella Ward | Tony Firriolo (previously this caption errantly identified the actress on the left as Jamie Lynn Sonnentag)

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