If you know who Ruth Snyder was, you already know how Machinal ends.
“Spoilers—she kills her husband,” explains theatre senior Laura Holt, costume designer. “And she ends up being executed by the electric chair.”
Theatre’s newest mainstage production is inspired by Snyder’s disturbing tale of murder and capital punishment in the 1920s. But the play isn’t obsessed with gory details or tabloid drama. In fact, the protagonist is an abstract figure, known simply as the Young Woman. Machinal instead explores societal expectations of women, and the experiences, emotions and aspirations that drove Snyder to violence.
Written by journalist Sophie Treadwell, the show premiered on Broadway just eight months after Snyder’s death in 1928, which gives the piece a more visceral tone. To capture this stark portrait of the Jazz Age, Holt conducted research into both the everyday fashion and the modern art movements of the era.
“One source that’s really valuable is commercial patterns,” says Holt. “Women would buy these patterns and then be able to make their own dresses.” Those patterns, along with photographs from the period, helped the designer recreate the clothing of middle and working class people, whose lives weren’t as well-documented as those of the ritzy upper class.
But the costumes had to be more than just period accurate. For Holt and the production team, the costuming had to evoke the emotional themes of the play. Machinal’s originated in the Expressionist tradition—an early 20th century German style that captured the internal turmoils of individual people. The Young Woman’s struggle to conform to the “machine” of society, her feelings of being dehumanized and her eventual death by a deadly electric contraption, are echoed by the austere black-and-white production design and the use of angular masks.
While the Young Woman’s first set of masks represent the feminine ideal that she feels pressured to conform to, the second set, inspired by the work of woodcut artist Ernst Kirchner, reflects her disillusionment.
Holt, who majors in theatre design and technology with a concentration in costumes, sees Machinal as a powerful vehicle for creative expression, even if the subject matter is grim.
“That famous picture of her in the chair—it’s so terrifying,” says Holt, referring to the blurry photo of Snyder mid-execution that was published in the New York Daily News. “Trying to come up with this world, it’s an amazing place to start, because it is such a visceral image and so intense to look at.”
The less-realistic Expressionist style has enabled her to sell unorthodox concepts to the directors, such as the monochromatic design that she can puncture with carefully placed blots of color on the costumes that catch the audience’s eyes.
“There is a lot of relevance to the modern world [in Machinal],” she says. Today’s hyper-idealized and Photoshopped images of women have set a new standard that is just as unattainable as the one that confined Snyder. “These things that are purporting to be liberating are really just a different set of ideals.”
Machinal, co-directed by Keith Byron Kirk and Dr. Jesse Njus, runs February 14 to 23. Get your tickets online or take advantage of a Valentine’s Day weekend buy-one-get-one promotion.