The Hairy Ape
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Through July 17
Throughout his long and productive career, playwright Eugene O’Neill pursued a course of experimentation, producing works both in a realistic style and in an expressionist mode that attempted to go beyond the limits of conventional theatre. The Hairy Ape in 1922 was the second of his attempts to transcend realism, following The Emperor Jones the previous year.
When The Hairy Ape opened on Broadway, it created a huge stir above and beyond consideration of its artistic merits. The Federal Bureau of Investigation worried that it was promoting radical politics, and the mayor of New York City tried to prevent it from opening, fearing it would spark riots, labor unrest and class war. But critics hailed it as a ground-breaking work, and a “message play” that examined the traumatic effects of industrialization and the resulting displacement suffered by individuals.
The play centers on Yank (Haile D’Alan), the head stoker on an ocean liner. He presides over the hot and hellish stoke hole, where he and his fellow firemen shovel the coal that fuels the huge ship. Yank is strong, brash and uneducated, but proud of the fact that he is the driving force that moves the vessel, and contemptuous of the upper-class passengers whom he condemns as effete and dead. But his view of himself and the world is ripped asunder by an unexpected encounter with a girl named Mildred (Katy Davis).
Mildred is the rich and spoiled granddaughter of the head of the Steel Trust and the owner of the steamship line. She wants to see how the other half lives, and visits the furnace room where Granddad began his career. The ship’s officers warn her that it’s hot and filthy and no place for a young lady in a white dress, but she insists. But she finds the experience terrifying, and when she encounters Yank, she is both horrified and appalled, regarding him as an uncouth and threatening hairy ape. She flees in terror.
Yank is unhinged by the encounter and forced to see himself from a new and unsettling point of view. His confidence and his self-image are shattered, and he’s furious and determined to seek revenge against this woman who both attracts and repels him. He launches a one-man class war, and sets out to find her.
On a Sunday morning on Fifth Avenue, he encounters representatives of the rich and powerful who are now his enemy, and confronts them — only to be driven away by the police. Displaced from his former world, he sets out to discover a place where he does belong, only to be rejected. Finally, he takes society at its word: If they call him a hairy ape, he will be a hairy ape, and seeks to befriend the gorilla at the zoo.
O’Neill’s experimental works were dear to his heart, but they have not aged well, and often seem like obvious agit-prop pieces — pretentious or occasionally absurd. His reputation today is based on his realistic works, and it is those which won him his four Pulitzer Prizes: Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, Strange Interlude and the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Perhaps in an attempt to bring the old play up to date, director Steven Berkoff his given it a radical staging. Yank’s fellow stokers are reduced to a sort of chorus: Nearly identically dressed, they act as a unit, their stylized shouts and violent movement punctuated by driving percussion, skillfully provided by Will Mahood. While this does generate immediate theatrical excitement, it also robs the characters of individuality, social context or historical time. And it tends to further underline the play’s already obvious thesis.
Berkoff’s approach increases the burden on Haile D’Alan’s powerful and eloquent Yank, pushing him toward stridence and yelling. Dennis Gersten plays the Irish seaman Paddy; a veteran of sailing ships, Paddy laments the old days, with their clean air and organic relation to the ship and the sea, and deplores the smoke and pollution created by mechanized ships. Paul Stanko offers solid support as Long, the would-be radical social reformer who befriends Yank. As Mildred, Davis is the perfect embodiment of privilege and entitlement — a shallow do-gooder. Jennifer Taub, as Mildred’s critical and acid-tongued chaperone. serves as the young woman’s foil. But in many respects, the star of the production is the excellent and disciplined ensemble, which includes Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian (as the Gorilla), Andres Paul Ramacho, and Anthony Rutkowicz.
Christopher Scott Murillo provides the handsome set design, and Ben Hethcoat supplies the striking projections.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, West L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., June 15, 8 p.m.; Thurs., June 2, 9, 23, 30, 8 p.m.; through July 17. (310) 477-2055, x-2 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.