BWW Review: Eugene O'Neill's THE HAIRY APE Addresses Social and Class Inequities Still in Place Today
THE HAIRY APE was first produced in 1922 by the Provincetown Players, a theatrical group co-founded by its author Eugene O'Neill who was already an established playwright, having won two Pulitzer Prizes. The expressionist style of the play represented a departure for him and caused an immediate uproar with its strong condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Of course, this made it appealing to many labor groups and unions, which seized upon its concepts to further their cause for better working conditions. In the years since its debut, the play has become recognized as a distinctive exploration of a pivotal period in American society.
THE HAIRY APE at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble through July 17 tells the story of Robert "Yank" Smith, a brutish ship laborer who searches for a sense of belonging in a world controlled by the wealthy elite who he believes only see him as a dirty and hairy ape rather than a real human being. As head coal stoker on an ocean liner, Yank (Haile D'Alan whose incredible and extremely physical performance lifts the entire production to the highest artistic quality) is in his element where he rules his dark, hot, hard-drinking smoky world while managing a group of six other coal stokers who seem to prove their resemblance to simians no matter what they do thanks to the brilliant and totally physical ape-like choreography of their every move by director Steven Berkoff. It's truly a wonder as to how the ensemble manages to keep their energy at such a high level throughout the entire show.
But when Mildred (perfectly prim and proper Katy Davis), the pale, spoiled daughter of the ship's owner visits the engine room to see how the ship operates, she is at once repulsed and terrified by Yank who horrifies her with his brutality. Half in love with the unattainable high-class beauty and half blinded by rage at her disgust of his physical presence and those who ride freely off the sweat of his back, the bewildered Yank blunders violently through Manhattan seeking revenge while trying to understand his place on "de oith."
Class differences are brought into remarkable focus as Yank watches a group of very well-dressed, high class New Yorkers strolling along Fifth Avenue who ignore him when he speaks until Yank raises a hand to get their attention. It seems that is the only time a man like Yank gets noticed, for his threatening attitude and animalistic brawn.
His continuing search leads him to a meeting of the International Workers of the World, an early communist group promoting the fair and equal treatment of laborers. But even they see Yank's tactics of blowing up businesses of the rich as ape-like and want no part of him. They throw him out and the downtrodden Yank's search ends at the most surreal location - The Zoo where he attempts to free the gorilla leader of the caged apes, played to perfection by the incredibly well-built Jeremiah O'Brian. But in his rush to free the only creature he sees as his equal, he fails to realize the consequences of his actions until it is too late. After all, this hairy ape really is just a wild and angry beast.
Kudos to the entire acting ensemble for their remarkable physical prowess, from their swaying together while drinking on the ship to their ability to demonstrate just how ape-like they have become. Along with D'Alan and O'Brian, the ensemble includes Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, Paul Stanko and Dennis Gersten as Paddy, the oldest of the boiler room crew. Jennifer Taub adds cynical humor as the high society looking-down-her-nose-at-everyone Aunt who is chaperoning Mildred on her ship journey.
Adding even more punch to the steamy environment and choreography is onstage percussionist Will Mahood whose every pounding beat accentuates the crew's rising discontent with their lot in life, as well as the variety of period and class appropriate costumes designed by Halei Parker. Director Steven Berkoff is to be commended for his skill at assembling and motivating such an incredible group of artists.Eugene O'Neill 's THE HAIRY APE continues through July 17 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm (with a few Wednesday and Thursday night performances) at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. Reserved seat tickets run $25-$34 with discounted tickets available for students and members of Equity/Sag for select performances. For reservations and show information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
Yank asks Long why New York high society members on Fifth Avenue won't speak to him. (from left): Joseph Gilbert, Katy Davis, Jennifer Taub, Dennis Gersten, Antony Rutowicz, Haile D'Alan , Paul Stanko
Photo by Ron Sossi
Yank faces the gorilla. Haile D'Alan and Jeremiah O'Brian. Photo by Enci Box
Jeremiah O'Brian, Haile D'Alan , Anthony Rutowicz. Photo by Enci Box
Photo by Enci Box