Forgotten drama piece revived

“Machinal,” a Drama Department senior project directed by Olivia Zerphy ’17, reanimates a largely forgotten play by playwright Sophie Treadwell. Courtesy of Kevin Johnson
“Machinal,” a Drama Department senior project directed by Olivia Zerphy ’17, reanimates a largely forgotten play by playwright Sophie Treadwell. Courtesy of Kevin Johnson
“Machinal,” a Drama Department senior project directed by Olivia Zerphy ’17, reanimates a largely forgotten play by playwright Sophie Treadwell. Courtesy of Kevin Johnson

“This is a play written in anger. In the dead wasteland of male society—it seems to ask—isn’t it nec­essary for certain women, at least, to resort to murder?” –Nicholas Wright

For a majority of this semester, a cast of eight people met for four hours a day, at least four days a week to feel their way through a challenging piece of drama. “Machinal,” a Drama Depart­ment senior project, opens this week in the Martel Theater. This fascinating expressionist show was playwright So­phie Treadwell’s most famous work, but it has been predominantly forgot­ten within the theater canon. Director Olivia Zerphy ’17 explained this un­familiar work by saying, “‘Machinal’ is the story of a young woman who murders her husband. Saying that doesn’t necessarily give anything away, as it is not a plot-based drama.” While “Machinal” is loosely based on the life of Ruth Snyder, a woman who kills her husband, the play has a larger agenda which transcends plot to a point.

Zerphy’s direction tackles difficult subjects and complex themes, such as sexism, the death penalty and religion, through thoughtful stage direction and innovative design elements. Photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson
Zerphy’s direction tackles difficult subjects and complex themes, such as sexism, the death penalty and religion, through thoughtful stage direction and innovative design elements. Photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson

The cast is confident in the creative ways they have chosen to represent the expressionist elements that domi­nate this play. Among these choices is the dedication to a movement-based communication of ideas. In effect, this production promises a highly physical style of theatre. Zerphy went as far as to say, “Some sections of the produc­tion begin to hint at dance theatre. While the text that Treadwell has written is absolutely stunning and most of her orig­inal words appear onstage, words are not para­mount in this production, but are simply one tool among many (images, sounds, movements) that we use to evoke this story.”

Connecting to “Machinal” throughout the creative process was not the easiest task. Lily Berman ’19, who will be playing Young Woman, arguably the only real character amongst carica­tures of the mechanized world around her, de­scribed the challenge of making that connection, commenting, “Since the play is often abstract and the dialogue is so unnatural, it can be dif­ficult to understand the play by just thinking, and hard to delve into the characters intellec­tually and psychologically. So a lot of the most challenging parts were figuring out how to build characters and the world of the play physically. We did a lot of improvisation, which got very wacky and weird and taught me a lot.” Berman continued, “A personal challenge that I faced was tapping into the religious themes in the play. I’m Jewish, so it has been challenging, but also really interesting and rewarding, to try to portray re­ligious experience and reckoning with God on­stage in the language of a religion I don’t know much about.”

Senior project member Jessica Rood ’17 af­firmed, “The most difficult part for me was defi­nitely choosing to act instead of stage manage for my senior project! I’ve been stage managing for the Drama Department for the past few years, so…[this] has been a challenging but also incred­ibly rewarding experience. Especially at the be­ginning of the creative process, I had a hard time getting out of my head and into my body.”

The challenges of putting on this play did not end at the intrapersonal understandings required of individual cast members, but extended out to each creative decision the group made for the whole of the show. Senior project member Lukas Sarnow ’17 was first introduced to “Machinal” in a Sources of World Drama class in his sopho­more year, and he has loved the show ever since. Sarnow recalled, “I was taken by the themes of isolation, disorientation and estrangement from society and expected familial bonds. In taking on this play, I understand that I had a responsibility in portraying these themes as didactic and pal­pable. These themes are important. The space to perform these themes is important and it must be done carefully, yet powerfully.” By dedicating themselves to this project, the entire cast com­mitted to taking on the responsibility of present­ing some very heavy themes to a live audience of people who are bound to come with their own sets of related experiences. Making choices un­der this kind of pressure is not the easiest thing to do either. Sarnow is one of five senior proj­ect members within the cast, and he explained, “Unlike other department shows I was in, there are different stakes. ‘Machinal’ is a direct chan­nel for the culmination of my artistic voice as a drama major, so there was more compulsion and thought in my decision making.”

Reflecting on the heavy themes, Rood ex­plained, “I think I can speak for everyone in the cast when I say that dealing with some of the subject matter (sexism, misogyny, abuse, institu­tionalized religion, the justice system, the death penalty, etc.) was challenging at times. Those were probably the most difficult days of rehears­al, but I am eternally grateful for the safe space that was created, and I hope we can translate that vulnerability to our audiences as a diving-off point for analysis of the play.”

Indeed, the dynamic of the group working on “Machinal” has served the production of the show well.

As heavy and taxing as some of the days were, no one interviewed could recall a lowlight from the rehearsal process. Rood explained, “We all brought our own lens and experiences to the ta­ble as we teased out the most difficult scenes in the show. What we aim for in our performanc­es is to present truth: to speak to the life of the Young Woman, as to any woman, to speak the truth about our society, religion, technology and relationships.”

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