O’Neill didn’t seem to care if his plays were hard to stage, so especially for smaller companies like Upstream Theatre, it takes imagine and creativity to successfully mount a production as complex as The Hairy Ape, and they nail it .
Scenic designer Jason Coale’s versatile backdrop works for settings as varied as the engine room of an ocean liner, a New York street, the back wall of a communist cell, and a zoo. All these effects are created with the considerable help of lighting designer Steve Carmichael. The ship is where the action begins with four stokers, drinking, talking and shoveling coal to make the ship move. We are reminded of ancient galley slaves by a steady drumbeat (live, courtesy of sound designer Patrick Siler) marking their stylized shoveling motions. Unlike galley slaves, however, they do get breaks and through their conversations is how we get to know them.
Tim Schall, whose character is unnamed, seems like the most optimistic and even-keeled of the bunch. John Bratkowski is Long, a Cockney character delivers soapbox screeds (he actually stands on a box for one peroration) about the plight of men like them. He raves on about how the Bible says all men are created equal, while they themselves are treated like dirt. William Grivna’s Paddy is too old for the work and too drunk for the conversation, but that doesn’t stop him from telling tales of a remembered past when the work was easy and the scenery grand. The fact that this is likely not true is of no concern to Paddy. And then there’s Yank (Christopher Harris). He is a gigantic man, a colossus among men, who is happy with himself and his work. He doesn’t just provide the power for the ship, he IS the ship and the power too. He is iron, he is steel, and his speeches are long and large, as he dominates his kingdom below, his metaphorical Hades.
The structure of The Hairy Ape is unconventional in that there are no acts, only scenes. In the second of eight, the action shifts to the upper deck where Mildred Douglas (Maggie Conroy), privileged daughter of a steel magnate and her aunt (Michele Burdette Elmore) who is also her chaperone, are taking the air. They bicker, and Mildred is disrespectful to the older woman, but apparently this is just her spoiled nature showing itself because her aunt doesn’t react until she learns Mildred has wangled a trip down to see the engine room. The older woman is horrified at the spectacle of her niece climbing down into the heat and filth below, but Mildred is bored and thinks this will be a lovely adventure. And so it is, until she arrives and encounters Yank who is having one of his verbal tantrums, waving his shovel around and threatening the unseen whistle blower. He’s only making idle threats, but he scares silk knickers off Mildred. When he turns, he only gets a glimpse of her as the engineer (Patrick Siler) who accompanied her drags her away in a near-swoon, shocked to her core by such raw power and masculinity.
Thus with one look of horror, one brief outburst, from an upper class twit in a white dress, Yank is undone. He is angry, embarrassed and perhaps most significantly, confused because he’s also attracted to the girl who becomes the vessel for his fury. He becomes unmoored, and until this very moment, he didn’t realize that in the world outside the engine room where his strength is his credential, he doesn’t belong. We’re reminded here of Othello after Iago has done his work. The rest of the play explores Yank’s marginalization, as he tries and fails to find a place for himself. Years of bending over a shovel has given him the sloped shoulders of an ape, as has his habitual wide stance to keep his balance in the rolling ship (it’s a nice touch that the actors occasionally sway to give us a sense of the motion of the ocean). He is huge and dirty, as well. He calls himself an “ape.”
A few weeks later in New York City he is accompanied by Long and Yank marvels at all the steel construction around them. He realizes more than ever that he and the others work a primitive job in a modern world. The people wander in Kabuki-style masks with huge empty eyes and small mouths. They chitter like aliens and Yank’s devolution into a beast is emphasized when their sounds make no sense to him. Yank develops a dramatic animosity toward rich man Douglas because he still resents the way Mildred has treated him too, so in Yank’s mind, the steel itself becomes another enemy. It represents progress, but also is the material of the bars of cages, one of which he finds himself in, courtesy of the NYPD where his cell mates (Bratkowski, Grivna and Schall) beat him badly.
He seeks refuge in a union (communist) hall, but his presence is misinterpreted. He ends up in a zoo, facing a great ape (wonderfully rendered in a shadow on the backdrop) and is, at last, aware that he is looking in a mirror. That in modern society (the early 1920s), he is Other, and he has been in cages, some steel like jail, some not, like the cage of his own making in the bowels of the great ship, which is the only one in which he belonged.
O’Neill subtitled this play “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life.” To me, that’s a little like Chekhov or Kafka claiming their work were comedies, but the terms “ancient” and “modern” are key. Yank would have been a king in ancient times, but he is a plebe in the modern world. As large as he is, unless he’s causing trouble, he’s invisible, as the masked toffs make clear. Thus he is naturally drawn to the last cage where he puts himself, still hoping to find his own kind. I see that as tragedy, and it fits on a continuum with all the 20th century angst ridden plays about the individual against an unfeeling society such as Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and others.
He can be classified with the so-called monsters of centuries ago as well, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the abovementioned Othello, and even Shylock and Twain’s Jim—an endless line of heroes and anti-heroes who find themselves on the outside looking in. Alienation is a classic theme then, and disenfranchisement. But as O’Neill has a debt to many earlier writers, Merian C. Cooper may owe O’Neill a lot too, because it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that Yank was the inspiration for Cooper’s iconic King Kong, who also had a thing for pretty girls in white dresses that found him repulsive. But it is, in the end, a universal tale of sorrow and woe which can only end one way.
Every actor in this play is spot on in his role, but Harris stands out, as he should with Grivna giving him a run for his money with his songs and dreams and perfect Irish brogue. The staging goes beyond imaginative, and Siler’s sound is a huge part of the mood with the drumbeats not only marking time for the stokers, but all time. The beat of the human heart is also one of the recurring rhythms. Jennifer “JC” Krajicek’s costumes add a lot to the sense of place and time, and also help delineate character through details like an uneven skirt hem for Mildred.
In this evocative and memorable rendition of the timeless character of the invisible man and the roaring beast inside him, an ego controlled almost entirely by an id, Boehm and his assistant director Wendy Renee Greenwood have performed a little miracle. This production is not to be missed.