Oracle Productions’ new play, The Hairy Ape, was one of Eugene O’Neill’s early works, written in 1922. It’s written in an expressionistic—rather than linear–style, which makes it suitable for director Monty Cole’s powerfully dark and physical production.
O’Neill wrote the play about Irish seamen doomed to a life in the stokehole of a transatlantic liner, unrecognized as humans by the wealthy people who traveled on the decks above. Cole has cast his Oracle production with African-American actors, which provides additional layers of meaning and rekindles the class and economic commentary in O’Neill’s 94-year-old script.
The play begins with the firemen in the stokehole celebrating the end of a day with drinking, singing and dancing. The scene is choreographed in body percussion. The actors stomp, sing, use body percussion, and pantomime the rhythm of their coal shoveling in the tightly spaced scene. Eleanor Kahn’s design of black horizontal and vertical pipes creates a multi-level space where the perfumers leap, dance, pull themselves up on bars, sit and lie upon the upper reaches of the space. Breon Arzell and Zach Livingston get credit as step master and fight choreographer.
The men complain about their boss and their work but Yank (Julian Parker), the eponymous ape, tells how he ran away from home and now the ship is home. He’s proud of his strength and his ability as a fireman to keep the ship steaming along. Long (Rashaad Hall) begins to spout socialist views of work and labor, but Yank and the other firemen shut him down. An older fireman, Paddy (Bradford Stevens) tells the younger men of the old days of sailing ships when “the power of the Trade Winds drove the ship on steady through the nights and the days.” O’Neill’s poetic language shines through:
“It was them days men belonged to ships, not now. It was them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one.” But today, “black smoke from the funnels smudging the sea, smudging the decks—the bloody engines pounding and throbbing and shaking—wid devil a sight of sun or a breath of clean air.”
The social contrast in the story begins with the conversation on the upper deck between a young woman heiress, Mildred, and her aunt, who are traveling to Southampton. Mildred’s father is an industrialist who owns steel mills and is chairman of the board of the ocean liner company. (In most productions, females play the two female characters. Here Tony Santiago and Michael Turrentine, two of the firemen, don hats, gloves and scarves to play Mildred and her aunt.) Mildred is interested in how “the other half lives” and decides to go to the stokehole on a slumming visit. Accompanied by the engineers, she goes down to the hole in her (figurative) white dress and is startled by the appearance of Yank in his sooty visage and grimy work clothes. She screams and calls him a “filthy beast.” Paddy says, “Sure, ’twas as if she’d seen a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo!”
Yank is angry and bewildered and vows to get even. Later he and Long go into Manhattan and view the passing crowds on Fifth Avenue. Yank ends up in prison after a fight, where he learns about the IWW (the Wobblies). He visits the union office where the secretary (Breon Arzell) explains the goals of the Wobblies, but Yank doesn’t understand. He is bent on destruction.
Yank’s story of belonging and identity, of finding his place in a world ruled by the rich that has no room for him, ends in a tragic scene at the zoo.
Oracle’s production of The Hairy Ape is an 80-minute performance piece rather than a dramatic story, but it suits the way O’Neill wrote it. Cole’s direction captures what is essentially a long poem on class distinction and economic inequality. And the casting of the six African-American actors is significant. As Cole says in an interview in the playbill, “At the bottom of this ocean liner, it’s still these men Eugene O’Neill wrote (about), but it’s also six brothers on a street corner on the south side of Chicago.”
The sextet of actors, playing multiple roles, generally do a fine job. Arzell is persuasive as the IWW secretary and Santiago is believable as Mildred. Unfortunately, Parker’s Yank—while emotionally connected to his character—has diction and speech problems. He’s often difficult to understand even in this small space; he doesn’t project or enunciate well and so we lose the power of some of his compelling speeches.
The Hairy Ape was produced as a film in 1944. Directed by Alfred Santell, the screenplay (not written by O’Neill) whitewashed the political and economic commentary, eliminating the IWW and the zoo ending and generally made it into a silly, happy-ending story. William Bendix starred as Yank with Susan Hayward in a more substantial depiction of Mildred, the wealthy heiress.
The Hypocrites produced an excellent, but more traditional, version of The Hairy Ape in 2009, as part of the Goodman Theatre’s yearlong O’Neill celebration. Sean Graney directed the creatively staged production in the Goodman’s smaller theater, with the audience seated on stage while the actors performed from the floor and the balconies.
The Hairy Ape continues at Oracle Productions, 3809 N. Broadway, through March 12, with performances Friday, Saturday and Monday at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are free but reservations are advised. Reserve your seats here. The box office phone is 252-220-0269.