February 24th, 2010
Main Street Theater – A Number & Machinal: Who Am I? How Am I?
Tucked away in the bustling Rice Village is the Main Street Theater. A green sign, like those that typically lead you to important places, leans away from Kirby at Times Boulevard. It will point you in the correct direction, but it’s easy to miss. In fact, if you’re not acquainted with the theater community in Houston, you’ve probably only been acquainted with the Main Street Theater when they pull the rug out from under the parking spot that you couldn’t believe was open, only to find it was actually reserved for their patrons. Damn the luck.
On this particular evening there isn’t a stray parking spot to be found. I’d been invited to catch the opening night of Main Street’s production of two one-act plays: A Number by Caryl Churchill and Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. I was warned to show up early in order to find parking, but recommendations like that are lost on a perpetual procrastinator like myself. I end up parking at the corner of Rice Blvd and Kelvin Dr to make the trek back to the theater. As I walk in the doors and approach the desk to get my tickets, the first thing that strikes me is the average age of those milling around. In a sea of septuagenarians, I’m definitely an outlier.
If you want a beer, a glass of wine or even a pack of Skittles, Main Street Theater has you covered. In a small holding room, they have all of the mentioned snacks and more for your enjoyment before the lights dim. Being the level-headed member of the press I am, I decide to forgo the consumption of alcohol. The program boasts that the first play is “startling” and I prefer to be startled on a sober stomach.
The lights dim and surge, signaling us to head into the theater itself to find our seats. During my tour of theaters in Houston over the past year, one thing has stuck out the most: The intimacy between stage and seating. Main Street Theater is no exception. My ticket reads “S-B-2,” which seems complicated until I enter theater. Luckily, I am intuitive enough to realize the “S” is for South. The entire stage is surrounded by seating and the walls are labeled as a compass rose with two rows at points North and South, four at East and West.
With the audience seated, the lights fall down. On stage, the table in front of us is set, quite literally. The two actors, Rutherford Cravens as the son and David Wald as the father, take their places at a table set for tea and start into an ambiguous conversation. With no time wasted, you’re immediately submerged into a story-line which revolves around father/son relationships, human cloning, and being provided a second chance.
With a stark set and minimal cast, Andrew Ruthven’s direction allows Cravens and Wald to play off each other fantastically. The actors, portrayals invite you to witness a father backpedaling and defending himself from a lifelong lie and a son who at 35 is only now finding out his identity (or lack thereof). Bernard is now just discovering that he’s the product of a cloning procedure.
Cloning itself has been a hot topic since the mid 90’s when Dolly became an international sensation. Caldwell’s play serves as a fantastic voyage, not into the ethics of the practice, but instead delving into psyche of a clone. How would someone feel if they found out they weren’t the original version? How would an original feel about being replaced? How would someone react if they had been completely removed from the situation? You could say that that the forces of nature versus nurture are the most important issue in A Number (because it has been said many times before). Simply stated, A Number explores the differences between “who am I?” and “how am I?”
Wald’s ability to cycle through three versions of Bernard, all of which are both unmistakably identical and different, is amazing. He’s able to both attack and defend while remaining aloof and logical, from scene to scene. His turn as Bernard is exceptional, but it’s Cravens’ steadfast performance as the constant that takes the performance over the top for me. Spanning the emotional spectrum from incredulous to quixotic to horrified and back again, his performance as Salter had me wishing that A Number wasn’t but an hour long.
After a brief intermission, the second leg of the night began: Machinal. After such a simple set in the first production, it was a bit of a surprise when four actors took to the stage at the outset of the second. As different as they seem in production, it’s quite obvious that they deal with similar, transcendent topics: hopelessness and destruction of free will.
The cast of seven, directed by Troy Scheid, takes on twenty-eight roles in one of Sophie Treadwell’s most acclaimed plays. This would be completely outside my paradigm, as one of my mantras has always been: “I have a hard enough time pretending to be myself.” The leading lady, Meghan C. Hakes, is the only actor who doesn’t change roles; though her character, Young Woman, goes through enough of a transformation as it is. Don’t take my word for it, even her mother thinks she’s crazy.
As the play opens, we’re introduced to a main character who, scene by scene, is losing every last bit of perspective she had left. Hakes’ over-the-top performance carries the audience with her to the brink of insanity. You can hear the voices in her head, repeating themselves and inducing hysteria. It’s all part of a journey into the heart of a woman who, feeling trapped by the expectations of society, tries to break free in the most violent way, murder. Her attempt at destroying the shackles of one inhibitor only lead to the very literal shackles of the law.
Machinal is very loosely based on the murder trial of Ruth Snyder, which was a sensationalist’s delight in 1920’s New York City. The play flirts with the consummate plot of woman marries man, woman falls in love with another man, woman is inspired by her lover and murders husband to know freedom. If you consider the cherry to be the twist of “second woman to ever be executed by the electric chair,” then you’ve got yourself quite the theatrical sundae.
With the spotlight on Hakes, she manages to carry the show well. As far as characters are concerned, Rachael Logue turn as the Telephone Girl has to be considered a favorite. In a play with such a weighty subject, the brief glimpses of comedy are unexpected yet overwhelming. Her lines, delivered in the Flapper Era New York accent, brought a brightness to the production that served to highlight the contrasting darkness of the true focus of Machinal. For me, it was easy to relate to the unwitting, oblivious Mr. Jones, played by Mark Roberts. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt completely outside, expecting one thing and receiving a metaphorical bottle filled with pebbles to the skull instead.
You have to give credit to Main Street Theater for pairing these two plays. A Number and Machinal, artfully presented back to back, leave audiences considering the consequences associated with both life and death. Even more intriguing is that the questions aren’t necessarily ones with answers. I may never know my thoughts on cloning until I meet a younger (or older) Paul 2.0 on the street. And as far as the battle between fate and free will… Well, that will continue to rage no matter what one piece of theater criticism has to say.
February 18 – March 14, 2010
by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Andrew Ruthven
by Sophie Treadwell
Directed by Troy Scheid
Where – 2540 Times Blvd., Houston, TX 77005 (View Map)
What – A Stage Tucked Away in the Village
Wear – Dress It Up a Bit
How Much – $20/$26 Thursdays; $25/$32 Fridays & Sundays; $30/$36 Saturdays
When – 7:30PM Thursdays; 8:00PM Fridays & Saturdays; 3:00PM Sundays
Web – Website; Facebook; Twitter