Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, considered one of the most important Expressionist plays in the United States, premiered on Broadway in 1928. Inspired by the life of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted of and executed for murder, this dark play captivated audiences and earned accolades from its inception, including Burn Mantle’s The Best Plays of 1928-1929. In response to the 1954 TV production, the New York Times wrote, “Sophie Treadwell’s expressionistic and bitter poem for the theatre must rank among the video season’s finest accomplishments.”
Brenna Geffers, an innovative director based out of Philadelphia, has directed a wide-range of plays from classical works to contemporary productions, in addition to creating her own theatrical pieces. She has served as Associate Artistic Director for Theatre Exile, a Literary Director for EgoPo Classic Theater, and an Artistic Associate for Flashpoint Theatre. Recently, as part of EgoPo’s all-women’s drama series, Geffers directed a shockingly beautiful production of Treadwell’s Machinal.
Brenna’s Gefferian breakthroughs
Henrik: What were the first signs during your formative years as a child and/or teenager that made you realize you loved theater?
Brenna: I am lucky. Growing up, theater was part of my world. My family loved old musicals. I remember seeing my older and incredibly impressive cousin performing the lead role in My Fair Lady. I can still picture perfectly her standing at the edge of the stage, dressed in black and white for Ascot Opening Day—it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I told my father as a pre-teen that I wanted to work in theater and his response was that I ought to know the best. Then he brought home a video of [Bob] Fosse’s Pippin. He is still right about Fosse being the best.
You have a reputation as being a highly innovative director, even doing things that no one else does. Could you describe those breakthrough moments in your life where you developed the courage to go beyond a regular script and brand the play in your Gefferian way?
Thank you for saying that. When I was younger, I think it was just pure curiosity with a dash of stubbornness, maybe. It didn’t seem to me like I was doing anything particularly different, and it didn’t make sense to me if someone suggested that that was not the way a piece ought to be done. But I think most directors feel that way.
I had a lot of great teachers, starting from my undergraduate time at Indiana University of PA, which had, and still does have, a great theater program. My time at Temple U earning my MFA was spent in the crucible with artists like Doug Wager and Bob Hedley, who challenged me to defend my choices, to really mean them. Dan Kern is a Philadelphia treasure; I am one of many who can look to him as a guiding force. Professionally, I was incredibly lucky to see Joe Canuso and Deb Block be brave and true to their choices as directors. I spent time assisting Whit [MacLaughlin] at NPL [New Paradise Laboratories] and saw what it was like for a director to really go after what he or she is feeling in their gut/soul/imagination—wherever it is that their impulses are coming from. I am so thankful to have had and still have these Masters to check in with about my work.
“We strove to find the humanity in the play.”
What made you select Machinal this year?
I find Machinal particularly important right now because of how women’s bodies are being talked about in the current political landscape. It sickens and angers me to hear pundits and politicians refer to the female body as if it were something unlike the independent, god-given, male bodies that they have. When politicians speak about whether or not a man can rape his wife, or if rape is a blessing from god, or if some girls are just more rape-able than others, I get mad. When New Hampshire State Representative Josh Moore says publically that men should be legally allowed to fondle a woman who is breastfeeding, I get mad. When I see “liberal” men talk about playing the “woman card,” I get mad. When a would-be world leader refers to the workings of the female body as “disgusting,” I get mad. Machinal is an angry play, and it is a suitable response to the absolutely asinine, blathering, hateful nonsense I hear about women and women’s bodies right now.
What was your overall concept for Machinal, first performed in 1928?
I was interested in looking at the way the rules of reality worked in the piece. We often spoke about “glitches” in the reality, the way one might experience in a dream. Things that are off, but just out of the corner of your eye. Those glitches helped to inspire the movement pallet of the piece.
Could you give an example or two?
I thought of the film Jacob’s Ladder when preparing the piece for rehearsals. Also, there is a video game series called Bioshock that helped inspire me towards this dystopian 1920s nightmare. There are so many moments from horror films, a healthy dash of 90’s music videos, and old Victorian gizmo-isms.
I think theater artists in particular hobble together so many moments, inspirations, memories, and secret meanings to make the world of the play feel whole and large. I know my work has lots of “Easter eggs” in it that may not mean anything to an audience member, but have impact. It adds to the sort of secret language that an audience feels and decodes when they watch theater. I think they can feel the specificity of the moment and then are left to apply meaning to that moment themselves. It is a way to activate their imaginations. A super obvious one is in the first moment of the play, before the first line. I recreated a version of the last moment from my Hairy Ape as a sort [of] “Now what? What’s Next?” place to start my work for Machinal.
Machinal by Sophie Treadwell deals with a tough topic, based on a true story of a young woman who murders her husband and gets executed in an electric chair.
We strove to find the humanity in the play as best as we could. For example, in the Court Scene, the Young Woman confesses that she could not divorce her husband as it would hurt him too much. This stood out as an important clue in terms of understanding how the Husband needed to be portrayed. We needed to believe that statement. Casting Ross Beschler was a big step towards that; his characters just breathe across his face like clouds across the sky. He is capable of creating such human fallacy and love in front of an audience because he is relentlessly specific in his work. He digs past the generalities and unearths the very needs and fears of his characters. This makes his Husband become an essential factor in the Young Woman’s life; he is all the more inescapable. If he, or the Mother, were just monsters, we would think the Young Woman to be foolish for not leaving them. They are not monsters. They are just oppressively mediocre. Just like most people.
Women are rarely the center of any story, let alone the anti-hero. So maybe it does require extra work to come into the Young Woman’s world—but it is work worth taking.
Collaboration with Thom Weaver
Given your free spirit, did you alter any text or reimagine passages? The last scene floored me. I thought we would see the execution of the young woman, only to discover that she was observing her own death—a powerful ending to this extraordinary production. How did you come up with that deeply thought-provoking alteration?
We did not alter the text with the exception of cutting a few words here or there for practical purposes. We did use recorded voice overs for some places. We also did physically embody events that were implied in the text, like the sexual encounter with the lover, the birth of her child, the murder of her husband, but I think it is in line with the style to allow these events to be visually represented for the audience. As for the final moment of her seeing her own body, that was all Thom’s idea. He asked, “We’re gonna show the electrocution right?” and I said, “Absolutely,” and he said, “Great because there is this thing I want to try . . .”
You are a strong team player who works closely with artistic teams. Tell us more about that approach for this production, which was dramatically different from any of your other theatrical creations.
This was the first time as a director I worked with a single production designer for all of the elements of the design: Thom Weaver. He and I worked together for the first time on Knives in Hens to create an immersive environment with lights and sets for Studio X, along with Chris Colucci, Dan Perlstein, and Rosemary Mckelvey. That was one of my favorite designs ever.
He and I decided we wanted to work that way again, but go even further if we could. It took us this long to get the chance. The process of collaborating with him has been incredibly satisfying. It is not just because he is an amazing designer; it is also because he is an amazing theater artist at large. He intuitively understands the very nature of live theater.
That’s great. Could you give some examples of Thom Weaver’s input on Machinal and the process of both of you collaborating on this remarkable piece?
We decided we wanted to make a “beautiful nightmare” and wanted to see how hard we could push the line between horrifying and stunning. To me, it was a gift to have someone with me at every step of the way in the conception process, a partner with whom to hash out the rules of the world at large. Almost every moment of the piece has Thom’s input on it. While we were crafting the last moment of Machinal, Thom actually got up on stage and started shaping and directing the actors to get it. I think it was quite a moment for him to suddenly be working with live bodies, rather than design elements, but he was amazing at it.
‘Machinal’: An Expressionistic Masterpiece: Interview With Director Brenna Geffers, Part 2 by Henrik Eger.
‘Machinal’ at Ego Po Classic Theater in Philadelphia reviewed on DCMetroTheaterArts by Neal Newman.
Brenna Geffer’s website.
Thom Weaver’s website.