- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

American writer Sophie Treadwell (1885-1970) chewed the fat with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, played the vaudeville circuit and was one of the first female correspondents in Europe during World War I.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that her plays were equally gutsy, starting with 1928’s “Machinal,” an experimental and racy work loosely based on the 1927 murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. While Miss Treadwell defiantly wrote the character of Helen, the play’s Ruth Snyder surrogate, as an antiheroine, she maintained that the heartless pace of American society in the 1920s contributed to her violent actions. A critical and popular success, “Machinal” was notable for starring a green and as yet unknown Clark Gable in the New York production.

“Intimations for Saxophone,” which also boldly toyed with female characters, was written in the early 1930s, but it was never produced. During the Depression, “producers were playing it safe, and ‘Saxophone’ is an adventurous play,” says Michael Kinghorn, former senior dramaturge at Arena Stage.

“Saxophone” fuses expressionism and realism in the story of Lily Laird, a rich society skirt who is something of a blank slate before marrying an equally wealthy young man who has this Oedipal thing going on with his mother. After a few years with her sexually repressed husband and colossal buttinski of a mother-in-law, Lily develops an urge for an uncouth floor-show dancer and knife thrower. Lily’s turbulent experiences express Miss Treadwell’s view that modern life with its unlimited choices can be as constricting as a traditional patriarchal society.

“Sophie was trying to say something important about the rise of advertising, the advent of new technology, the sexual revolution and the desires of women who were throwing off Victorian mores at an astounding rate,” Mr. Kinghorn says.

Languishing “under lock and key at the New York Public Library,” the work remained a theatrical footnote, Mr. Kinghorn says, until he discovered a different version of the play at the Library of Congress and lobbied Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, to take on the project. Miss Smith added “Saxophone” to the 2004-05 season, tapping the iconoclastic, movement-based Anne Bogart to direct.

“Letters in the Treadwell archive at the University of Arizona suggest that Sophie reworked the play repeatedly and eventually gave up on it,” Mr. Kinghorn says, adding that he found eight drafts in the archives. “At this point, I realized the play needed to be adapted rather than done straight from Sophie’s various drafts.”

The rewritten version of the never-seen “Saxophone” premiered at Arena Stage this month, with Mr. Kinghorn striving to capture the dash of Miss Treadwell’s style and Miss Bogart hoping to draw on the music, dance and iconography of the era without making the show into a tinted rotogravure of yesteryear.

“I think audiences will be surprised at how contemporary the play’s sensibilities are,” Mr. Kinghorn says. “This play comes solely from Sophie’s imagination, and there is no proletariat heroine in ‘Saxophone.’ The protagonist is filthy rich, which usually doesn’t evoke a great amount of sympathy in audiences. The play also has an ambiguous ending, a symbolic death that works for today’s audiences.”

Some of Lily’s actions may seem self-destructive, but Mr. Kinghorn says that’s what makes the character human. “She acts on an instinctual level, which is not always the wisest course, but her motivations are pure,” he says. “And who cannot relate to her great desire to be loved?”

“Sophie was a vaudeville performer, and ‘Saxophone’ contains the fast rhythms of vaudeville,” Miss Bogart observes. “She was a journalist too, and the writing has that immediate, ‘Front Page’ feel. The play moves cinematically and was so ahead of its time.”

Miss Bogart says she was “born to direct this play,” citing her fondness for the spirit of 1920s culture. “The prevalent movement in theater, American expressionism,” she says, “reveled in the influences of jazz music, cubism, surrealism, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Freud’s idea of the subconscious. It was an explosion of ideas in culture, and playwrights weren’t afraid to experiment.”

She classifies “Saxophone” as a prime example of American expressionism, which was pioneered by writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos. “In Sophie’s case, she dealt with the sexual liberation of women, feminism and the push in the ‘20s to market and advertise directly to women,” Miss Bogart explains. “In ‘Saxophone,’ Lily discovers freedom and autonomy after being caught up in situations not unlike what young women go through today.”

Both Miss Bogart and Mr. Kinghorn caution that although “Saxophone” is built on real emotions and urges, it is not akin to a weepy Lifetime movie of the week about a young woman’s journey of self-discovery.

“It moves at breakneck speed, just like the era itself,” Miss Bogart says. “It depicts an internal struggle in an exuberantly theatrical way. There is nothing naturalistic about it.”

WHAT:”Intimations for Saxophone”

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 27

TICKETS:$45 to $59

INFORMATION:202/488-3300

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