“The Hairy Ape” is an artistic endeavor of extreme physical and stylistic prowess… a rare gem of highly accomplished theatre… crafted by renown british actor-writer-director Steven Berkoff, in an ambitious revival of the rarely produced Eugene O’Neill expressionist play.
“Lays an audience flat with the brute force of a modern tragedy.” – Charles McNulty, LA Times
“A rare revival… an anguished cry on behalf of the exploited and dismissed… Berkoff and his extraordinarly cohesive ensemble realize a physically expressive movement vocabulary.” – Myron Meisel, Stage Raw
“Deliver[s] a proletarian punch to the solar plexus that a viewer will feel long after the curtain calls…. It reveals truths about our society that are still very much on point. Do not miss it.” — Eric Gordon, People’s World
“FANTASTIC… a first-rate production” that “will haunt you long after you leave the theater.” — Erin Conley, On Stage and Screen
“Do not miss it… The Odyssey production utterly convinces that The Hairy Ape is one of the early masterworks of 20th-century American theatre.” — Eric Gordon, People’s World
“Physicality is abundant in Berkoff’s direction, … and the energy and dedication in the ensemble, stylized and poetic, at once enchants and brings the text to life.” – Michael Sheehan, On Stage Los Angeles
“UNDENIABLY VIRILE… There’s no question this is a good production of The Hairy Ape.” “He’s cast a wonderfully odd but tight male ensemble that almost immediately pronounces their bare-chested masculinity.” — Anthony Byrnes, KCRW 89.9 FM
“Director Steven Berkoff… has crafted scenes of beauty and grace… the ideas are crystal clear… a very talented cast.”— Elaine Mura, LA Splash
“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.” – Neal Weaver, Stage Raw
“MESMERIZING STAGING… the whole ensemble cast certainly proves that in this production they are ‘de ting in gold dat makes it money!’ “ — Catherine J. Siggins, British Weekly
A MUST-WATCH PRODUCTION… superb performances… fierce and attention-grabbing in an artful way” — Marvin Vasquez, Living Our Loud
UNFORGETTABLE… . starkly staged and beautifully choreographed… Looking forward to a second visit to experience this performance again, even though the images are still fresh in my mind.” — Carol Edger Germain, ColoradoBoulevard.net
“BRILLIANT… incredible and extremely physical performance lifts the entire production to the highest artistic quality… Kudos to the entire acting ensemble” — Shari Barrett, Culver City News
“EXCITEMENT AND DRAMA WITH A CAPITAL D” — Will Manus, Total Theater
“SPLENDID… This high-energy production is as good as it gets.” — Paut Myrvold, Theatre Notes
“IT WORKS… his cast is wonderfully in sync to Berkoff’s intent [and] skillfully convey to the stage all the extreme demands Berkoff puts on them” — Ernest Kearney. The Tvolution
“A rare revival… an anguished cry on behalf of the exploited and dismissed… Berkoff and his extraordinarly cohesive ensemble realize a physically expressive movement vocabulary.” – Myron Meisel, Stage Raw
Must-See Theatre – Dany Margolies, TimeOut Los Angeles
Mixing brutal expressionism with satiric lampoon, the play (subtitled “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes”) offers a portrait of the working man in the industrial age, his muscle used to fatten the coffers of the wealthy, his mind dismissed as primitive, more simian even than human.
After the Wooster Group thrillingly deconstructed “The Hairy Ape,” I wasn’t sure there was anything left to reveal. But the revival at the Odyssey Theatre, directed by the eminent British theater writer, director and actor Steven Berkoff, finds a fresh way in treating O’Neill’s play as a contemporary rallying cry addressed as much to our own gilded age as to O’Neill’s.
Nothing is updated, but outrage over the injustice of society’s dehumanization of a segment of the proletariat pulses through the production with the same intensity as a Bernie Sanders harangue against Wall Street.
As the opening scene makes clear, O’Neill knew well the hard-drinking, roughhousing ship workers he was writing about. The “firemen” in “The Hairy Ape,” those men in the stokehole who feed the ship’s furnaces with coal, are anything but saints. When not working in their cramped hell, they can be found brawling until they pass out from either booze or blows.
The violence of their interaction is stylized but at a fever pitch. Berkoff’s ensemble, which includes strong performances by Jeremiah O’Brian and Paul Stanko, attacks the group scenes with the requisite ferocity. A percussionist (Will Mahood) accompanies the firemen’s clobbering and stomping and effectively drowns out some of the heavily accented dialogue (never O’Neill’s strong suit).
Yank (a mesmerizingly fierce Haile D’Alan) is the king of this forecastle, a man who earns respect through superior strength alone. He is the drama’s Prometheus, the tortured protagonist who wants revenge after Mildred (Katy Davis), the vainly do-gooding daughter of a steel tycoon, ventures down into the stokehole to examine the working conditions only to leave fleeing in horror at the sight of “the filthy beast” roaring at his fellow workers.
Given that an African American actor is playing Yank, it would have made more sense for Berkoff to cast a more multicultural ensemble to avoid any pernicious racial overtones in the equation of Yank with a hairy ape.
O’Neill is writing about the plight of these workers, not America’s original sin. Yank is the sacrificial figure, the toughest of the lot who is also the most vulnerable.
This powerfully comes through in the production, but a more diverse set of actors would have precluded any unintentional associations with our racist past, particularly in the final scene, in which Yank trades places with a gorilla at the zoo.
In keeping with O’Neill’s play, the propulsive staging packs more of a visceral than an intellectual punch. “The Hairy Ape,” potent despite being structurally clumsy, works on our nervous systems. O’Neill labeled it a comedy, but as this revival demonstrates, it lays an audience flat with the brute force of a modern tragedy.
Theater Review: The Hairy Ape at Odyssey Theatre
When Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape debuted in 1922, it caused quite a stir. The mayor of New York tried to shut down the original production, worried it would inspire labor protests, and even the FBI noted the work was dangerously close to being radical propaganda. Nearly a century later, this rarely produced, expressionist examination of class divides, currently in a first rate production at LA’s Odyssey Theatre, still resonates.
The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank (Haile D’Alan), a brutish, uncivilized laborer who works stoking the engines of a ship. He is confident in his ability to do his job and in his influence over his equally unsophisticated colleagues. One day, Mildred (Katy Davis), the uppity, spoiled daughter of a steel tycoon, visits the ship and sees Yank in action. She is horrified and frightened at this glimpse of how the other half lives. Ashamed and realizing Mildred looked at him as if he was a “hairy ape,” Yank realizes he has no idea where he belongs in the world, and sets off on an ill-advised journey through New York City to get revenge and reestablish his sense of identity.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s fantastic production of this very physical play places a strong emphasis on the symbolism of the lower class as barely removed from apes. The way the ensemble moves across the stage recalls this comparison in every moment of the piece. It is understandable that labor unions found it so appealing—it shines a light on the intense, dehumanizing labor conditions of the time, and paints a very unflattering portrait of what we would now refer to as the one percent.As the play continues, the story becomes increasingly surreal in nature. Although I perhaps should have in hindsight, I did not see the brutal, shocking end coming—the final sequence is one that will stick with you. Steven Berkhoff’s direction is inspired, making the most of the sparse, open set, which leaves room for the extensive physical movement required of the actors.I could go on all day about D’Alan’s powerhouse lead performance, a large part of this production’s effectiveness. It’s a role that must take an exhausting physical toll on the actor—Yank speaks almost exclusively by yelling, and is nearly constantly at a boiling point of physical anger. As he devolves throughout the course of the piece, you can’t take your eyes off of him, even when the scene is so horrifying you may want to.Interestingly, the questions raised in act one are never entirely answered. I expected more to be made of Yank’s morbid fascination with Mildred and all she represents, but in the end she only exists as a catalyst for Yank’s own emotional journey, which is the true center of the play. In a society divided by wealth, it is difficult to know where you belong—Yank becomes ashamed of his role as a laborer, he abhors the upper class, and even working class activists view him as a joke. Where this journey of self discovery leads him is both surprising and inevitable, and makes a bold statement about the damaging effects of classism and poor working conditions.
The timing of this production of such a charged political piece is definitely apt. While many of the specific issues explored are long outdated, the larger themes still ring true and can be applied to other conflicts in modern society. The whole thing toes the line between nightmare and reality, and certain images will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
The Hairy Ape runs at the Odyssey through July 17th with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. There are select additional Wednesday and Thursday evening performances through June. Tickets range from $25-34 and can be purchased at www.OdysseyTheatre.com.
Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”: A shocking protest against capitalist barbarism
The Hairy Ape is a stark broadside against the vast differential of wealth and power of “The Roaring Twenties.” Excess consumption and privilege on the part of the few; degradation, humiliation and brutalization for the many toiling away in the engine rooms of capitalism. The protagonist Yank is the most class-conscious of his peers, fellow coal shovelers in the boiler room of a fancy ocean liner steaming toward Southampton, England. The sniveling do-gooder daughter of the ship owner is onboard and curious to see “how the other half lives.” When she descends into the engine room, dressed like an angel in her pure white gown suitable for an elegant garden party, and when she hears Yank’s brutal, frank, vulgar speech, she is appalled at his bestiality. Yank is driven insane with a frightening class rage that he cannot control. O’Neill endows this terrifying character “with a fierce elegiac poetry,” in the words of the brilliant director Steven Berkoff. The seaman “represents all too powerfully and even poignantly the heart of the workingman” whose soul has never been touched by love.
The great African American actor Paul Robeson was identified with O’Neill’s work in three different works: All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones (both 1924), and The Hairy Ape, of which he was able to give only five performances in London in 1931 before he quit out of pure exhaustion. Although Robeson was generally well received as Yank, the play received sharp barbs owing to the producers’ “racially blind” casting in the part. One London critic wrote that “It upsets the balance or alters the whole direction of the piece…. One cannot help thinking that here is something which has to do with racial consciousness and the oppression of the [N]egro.”
This issue, so remarked upon today, was also controversial then, but audiences have come “a long day’s journey” since 1931: We can now appreciate not so much the contradiction of the author’s original intent but rather the additional layering provided by unexpected casting.
That is indeed the case with the present production at the Odyssey, whose lead is taken by the virile, muscled Hailé (pronounced hi-lei) D’Alan, born on Chicago’s South Side and now mostly resident in Austin, Texas. It should be noted that D’Alan is the only non-white member of the cast, so presumably the racial angle is intended in these Black Lives Matter times. However, his understudy Jeremiah O’Brian, another cast member who may have occasion to jump into Yank’s role at some point, is white.
A “message” play delivered by thunderbolt
D’Alan is a phenomenon of nature in this role. It barely matters that in the early shipboard scenes with his seven heavily imbibing fellow coal stokers the language is shouted so gruffly and drunkenly that we barely understand a word. It’s clearly meant to sound only intermittently human from a gang of virtual galley slaves, who indeed are seen knuckle-dragging in their simian-like gait. Yet Yank is a worker proud to “breathe and swallow coal dust.” His awareness of class screams out of his guts. By contrast, the character of the old salt Paddy (Dennis Gersten) has memories of the old tall ships of decades past, when a sailor could enjoy the elements, hone his seamanship skills, and not be condemned to spending his voyages down in a hellish oven.
The crew move as one with the heaving and swelling of the waves. I almost regretted I hadn’t taken a Dramamine before I sat down, so realistic did Berkoff make the impression of the movements of a great ship at sea. The other cast members compete with one another in exuding testosterone from every pore, but are less distinguishable as individual characters.
The two ladies on board, the heiress Mildred (Katy Davis) and her chaperone Aunt (Jennifer Taub) play their snooty parts to the hilt. There’s little question where O’Neill’s sympathies lay when he poured his heart into this tirade against the rich. This is a “message” play delivered by thunderbolt.
When the ship lands back in New York (from his accent this appears to be Yank’s home town) the whole cast except for Yank and his sidekick turn into suave boulevardiers just leaving church services, looking like they danced out of a satirical George Grosz etching. They eventually call the cops on Yank for taunting and assaulting them. Yank turns to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which he’s heard about as defenders of his class, thinking at last he has found the place where he can belong. But even they cast him out as “a brainless ape,” believing that either he’s too stupid for them or that his talk of violence and dynamite can only be that of a paid provocateur.
Berkoff directs his ensemble as if it’s ballet, every movement calibrated to connect organically with the other actors on stage. It’s a brash, surreal montage of speech, pantomime, and tableau. The set design is by Christopher Scott Murillo, lighting by Katelan Braymer, and sound design by Christopher Moscatiello. The live percussionist in this loud, powerful production is Will Mahood. Its 85 minutes, with one intermission, deliver a proletarian punch to the solar plexus that a viewer will feel long after the curtain calls.
In its recapitulation of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing repetitive motions endemic to industrial work, the 1922Hairy Ape anticipates Elmer Rice’s play The Adding Machine by one year, and the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times by a full 14 years. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the historic precedent O’Neill established. The play attracted the attention of the new Federal Bureau of Investigation, which kept a file on O’Neill. The FBI’s report on him stated that “The Hairy Ape could easily lend itself to radical propaganda, and it is somewhat surprising that it has not already been used for this purpose.” The mayor of New York tried to shut down the production for fear it would provoke labor disputes or riots.
But the Twenties were a hard time for labor in America. The anarcho-syndicalist IWW was by then largely routed, victim of the Palmer Raids and anti-immigrant fervor across the land, and the new Communist Party, inspired by events in Bolshevik Russia, had just recently been established. The national mood was caught up in the heady prosperity of speculation which ended, as we all know, with the crash of the stock market in 1929.
American Expressionism is not the most beloved period of our national theater tradition, as witnessed by the relative infrequency of stagings of this play. So now I have a mea culpa to offer: Because honestly I was not familiar with The Hairy Ape, in my 1989 biography of the composer Marc Blitzstein, I failed to note that it had to have been a strong influence on his 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, especially in its cartoonish portrayal of the ruling-class Liberty Committee and of the Reverend Salvation, who preaches pacifism when it’s personally convenient, and war when he’s properly compensated.
The Odyssey production utterly convinces that The Hairy Ape is one of the early masterworks of 20th-century American theatre. The ending is chillingly cathartic. Yet it is no period piece staged for our academic edification. It reveals truths about our society that are still very much on point. Do not miss it.
Performances run through July 17 on selected Wednesdays and Thursdays in May and June, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. For exact schedule and for tickets and information, contact the Odyssey at (310) 477-2055 ext. 2, or www.OdysseyTheatre.com. The Odyssey Theatre also has a Facebook page. Three performances have been designated as $10 ticket nights: May 20, June 2, and July 1. The theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025.
Berkoff Directs O’Neill at the Odyssey
by Michael Sheehan, On Stage Los Angeles
THE HAIRY APE by Eugene O’Neill
Ron Sossi’s Odyssey Theatre Ensemble had a colorful beginning in the last century on the shady side of Hollywood. For over 45 years, Ron and actors, directors, designers, playwrights, publicity folks and all the elements of creating imaginative theatre have come together with Sossi’s interest in presenting Theatre. Not just plays, but Theatre in the sense that it fulfills the classic and ‘important’ role that The Theatre is called upon to play in world culture. His dedication to playwrights like Brecht and O’Neill to bring grit and importance to the Los Angeles Theatre Scene blossoms in the current production of O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE. Add to Sossi’s dedication to the ‘stuff’ of world theatre his invitation to Steven Berkoff, to direct his own version of the 1922 play with a cast of seasoned actors? There we have something: Something important. Berkoff, now in his seventies, has a long reputation of not fooling around with his directing and has gained notoriety as a playwright, actor and teacher as well. Early on in his career he associated with Jacques LeCoq, a renowned teacher of a physical approach to acting. This physicality is abundant in Berkoff’s direction of this O’Neill and the energy and dedication in the ensemble, stylized and poetic, at once enchants and brings the text to life.
The language of the 1920s as we may remember from early motion pictures is not easy to reproduce. Haile D’Alan as Yank is thick and mean. He rules the Stoker Room where the crew’s singular task is to keep the engines of the giant cruise ship moving. Haile Parker’s costumes , Katelan Braymer’s lighting design on Christopher Scott Murillo’s bare stage bring the show to life. Berkoff’s ability to assemble his ensemble as a unit shows that when an imaginative director is given trust by his cast, amazing things can happen.
The energy of an early opening night (5PM) made some of the shouted dialogue difficult to understand. The early twentieth century style of O’Neill’s words takes a special affinity for losing contemporary rhythms, see? As this production moves forward, I’m sure that opening night adrenalin will dial back a notch or two. Even though the physical action of the play fully supports the dialogue, understanding the language is still important.
Yank and the crew are visited in the bowels of the ship by Mildred (Katy Davis) who has basically defied the influence of her Aunt “shiperone” (splendid Jennifer Taub) having told the Engineer that her father is a big wig and is led to the depths of the ocean liner in her pristine white dress to see how these ‘apes’ do their work. She faints at the site of Yank calling him a “Hairy Ape!” The incident sticks with Yank and spurs him later on shore leave in New York to taunt the ‘swells’ and even attempt to join the Wobblies (IWW: International Workers of the World) who sign him up and then reject him because his goal is to wreak havoc. Rejected, he finds his way to The Zoo where he attempts to connect with the apes. Ultimately, he does connect: to his demise. The physical work throughout is beautifully coordinated.
An important factor in the over all success of this production falls to the brilliant introduction of live percussion by Will Mahood.
The Hairy Ape Review – A Surrealist Vision of Hell
An uneducated man who can barely read, Bob “Yank” Smith (the talented Haile D’Alan) is an Everyman who tries to ponder life’s inequities while shoveling coal into the belly of an ocean liner. This is the 1920’s, when the Industrial Revolution was in full sway and workers were just beginning to organize and make demands of their employers. Born on the Brooklyn waterfront – “that was where I was dragged up” – Yank craves something amorphous which he can’t quite verbalize – perhaps feelings of worth and self-respect. He is a coal stoker whose primary talents appear to be his Herculian strength and his ability to feel pride in his work. In his brutish and physical world, there is little time for philosophical meanderings. Yank seems happy doing his job well while occasionally wondering if there is anything better out there for him.
Enter Mildred (Katy Davis), the beautiful, sophisticated, and bored daughter of a multi-millionaire steel baron and ship owner. She too may feel that something is lacking in her life – but its luxury and power have kept such questions at bay. She is traveling on the very same ocean liner and has manipulated the ship’s captain into arranging for her to visit the ship’s bowels to observe the men confined endlessly in the smoky, steaming heat doing a dirty but necessary job. Just at the moment when she enters Yank’s dark and forbidding world, she happens upon a furious Yank who is raging at the ship’s engineer with threats of death and dismemberment. Yank swings his shovel in fury and spins around – and first sees Mildred, an otherworldly image all in white, standing terrified behind him. As he gazes at her in shock, she screams and beats a hasty exit.
Suddenly, Yank is confronted by the very real social class differences which divide society – a chasm which he cannot breach. He feels that he has become ape-like and trapped. He is shamed and angry and vows revenge on Mildred and her privileged group. One of his fellow laborers, Long (Paul Stanko), insidiously introduces Yank to the evils of their situation, casually mentioning the Communist movement and the Industrial Workers of the World. The rapt Yank is awed by the possibilities. This is definitely an accident waiting to happen.
Director Steven Berkoff has focused on the physicality of the piece and has crafted scenes of beauty and grace in the hell of Yank’s world. The stage is nearly empty, with lighting and the occasional bench to carry forward the mood. Into this spare background, the movements of the workers become poetry. Even the stilted movements of the “hoi-polloi” offer a kind of dance which pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of an entire painfully stratified society. O’Neill’s language may be poetic; but the dialog is often difficult to understand, peppered with a variety of thick accents and Yank’s Brooklyn-English. However, the ideas are crystal clear and transmitted via nonverbal means and methods. The production team manages to keep the mood highlighted, even when the scene is in shadow. Special kudos to a very talented cast who keep the tension alive in a piece which might otherwise seem dated. American society has changed, but people remain the same. The surreal quality of this interpretation is noteworthy and lends an added dimension to THE HAIRY APE.
The Hairy Ape
by Neal Weaver, Stage Raw
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.
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape isn’t a play you get a chance to see very often.
by Anthony Byrnes, Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW
Written in 1922, it’s one of O’Neill’s early plays. Which, to place it in context, means that O’Neill had only won two of his four Pulitzers when he wrote it.
The story draws on O’Neill’s maritime past and focuses on the brutally hard men that stoke the coal burners of transatlantic ships. The plot is fairly simple. We meet this gang of men. One day, mid voyage, the daughter of the steel magnate asks the captain to take her down to the belly of the ship to see these men working. The toughest among them, Yank, is entranced by her presence. She’s horrified by the vision and Yank is branded no more than a “hairy ape.”
He’s transfixed by this experience and needs to track down this woman. He stalks her through the streets of New York and vows to exact his revenge. He searches out the Industrial Workers of the World in hopes they’ll help him destroy her father’s factories. No luck, they think he’s a snitch. So he seeks solace and power amongst the actual apes at the zoo. As you might guess, this doesn’t go well.
It’s easy to see what attracted British director and actor Steven Berkoff to revive the text. It is, on one level, a play about class divide, about the injustice of extreme inequality. As others have pointed it out, you can ‘feel the Bern’ in the play’s message.
Mr. Berkoff’s production, currently playing at the Odyssey Theatre is undeniably virile. He’s cast a wonderfully odd but tight male ensemble that almost immediately pronounces their bare-chested masculinity. As if the stomping and chanting of these men isn’t enough, they’re accompanied by a live percussionist who underscores the more violent moments with booming slaps. To say this is a man’s world is almost gratuitous. You’re observing a tribe where the mettle of a man is contained in the strength of his sinews. It’s a world of a different time not only for its physicality but also its language.
O’Neill writes the dialogue in a deep dialect of the time. To its great credit, the production brings both this testosterone driven world of language and physicality to life. Part of the shock and joy of the play are the moments when we recognize in the past the patterns and language of the present. There’s no question this is a good production of The Hairy Ape.”
The more challenging question is what does “The Hairy Ape” have to tell us today. If we want to look more deeply than a period piece with a clear, almost didactic, message – where does the drama reside? Here, I came up short. The outlines of the story are so clear that I yearned for more nuance. The play has to it that tragic descent and fatalism of a Zola novel. While powerful, it falls into the category of unrelenting drama rather than thrilling drama.
We’re going to see more plays like this as the American theater grapples with a way to give voice to the frustrations that our political candidates are drawing on for their lifeblood.
The Hairy Ape plays at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA through July 17.
Finding enlightenment with the Hairy Ape
by Catherine J. Siggins, British Weekly
Call me crazy, but I think it’s more then just coincidence that four days after Odyssey Theatre opens their production of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play “The Hairy Ape”, Pope Francis goes all High Sparrow at his morning mass, condemning the “theology of prosperity”, saying employers who use the poor for their enrichment are “bloodsuckers”.
One can most definitely say that this 1922 play, about man’s dehumanization by modern industry and the privileged classes, seems very contemporary and relevant in our current economic and political times, which resembles a slow slide back to the financial and social inequality of the early 20th century.
“The Hairy Ape” tells the story of Robert “Yank” Smith, an uncouth coal-stoker, a runaway raised on brutality, who finds belonging in the bowels of a streamliner, where he is king, the strongest of his co-workers, made up of immigrants, including an English socialist, intent on defending workers rights. However, he is made to question his value as a human being by the arrival of an “angel” in the form of Mildred, the ship-owners privileged daughter, who calls him a “filthy beast”. Becoming conscious to the reality of his existence, he embarks on a quest in the streets of Manhattan to seek revenge, and to reaffirm his place in the world. Sadly, all he finds is exclusion, suffering, and ultimately an ironic death.
It makes perfect sense that this production should be directed by award-winning British writer/actor/director, Steven Berkoff, returning for the third time to direct at the Odyssey. In an interview with The Irish Times in 2014, he said in the past that he has been kept outside of the RSC and National for years, and no doubt this exclusion from these national institutions, and constant feelings of being an outsider forging his own path, is echoed by O’Neill’s protagonist, Yank.
In this production, Berkoff does what he does best, adhering to his artistic philosophy that “everything in [his] art must be created from the body onwards”. The focus remains on his ensemble of actors, so there is minimal set and lighting design, and it is up to the cast to physically communicate the location and emotion of the play. A lot is asked physically and vocally of the cast; from the sheer athleticism of the brawling coal-stokers, recreating the physical behavior of primates, to the stylized movement of the 5th avenue swells; which the whole cast does with great success. They are rhythmically accompanied by percussionist Will Mahood, to emphasize moments of action and tension, much like a hayashi in Japanese Kabuki.
Yank, played with gut busting energy by Hailé D’Alan, resembles every inch a brawler, though at times I found O’Neill’s vivid language and ideas were getting lost as the focus is so strongly on the physical. Dennis Gersten gives a funny and affecting performance as Paddy, the eldest of the coal-stokers. The scene where he remembers his youth on the sailboats of old was one of the most moving in the play, aided by Berkoff’s mesmerizing staging. Katy Davis and Jennifer Taub achieve stratospherically refined airs in their uber-heightened delivery as Mildred and her Aunt. In short, the whole ensemble cast certainly proves that in this production they are “de ting in gold dat makes it money!”
Five Reasons to See “The Hairy Ape”
Marvin Vasquez, Living Our Loud
“The Hairy Ape” is now playing at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. It’s a perfect re-imagination of a play from the 1920s about the dehumanized working class and the capitalistic machine that feasts on them. It’s a must-watch production written by Eugene O’Neill and directed by Steven Berkoff. There are a number of reasons to watch this play, but here at the top five.
1) It’s “a rallying cry for the Bernie Sanders crowd” – Despite Sanders’ impending return to the United States Senate after almost causing one of the greatest upsets in the history of U.S. politics, people are still Feelin’ the Bern, which is why the return of “The Hairy Ape” couldn’t have come at a better time. Steven Berkoff, who’s had an illustrious film and theater career, directs this riveting play called “a rallying cry for the Bernie Sanders crowd” by L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty.
2) The Acting – From top to bottom, the cast (Hailé D’Alan, Benjamin Davies, Katy Davis, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian, Andres Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, Paul Stanko, Dennis Gersten and Jennifer Taub) is such a perfect fit for this play that features memorable knockout performances. The superb acting alone is reason to watch.
3) The Odyssey Theatre – Whether it’s giving up-and-coming voices a stage or bringing back old classics, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble does an excellent job picking its productions. This is no different, as “The Hairy Ape” is one of many classics brought back to this wonderful, charismatic theater. Everyone, from the office to the people in concessions to the folks in the box office, seems to be immersed in this theater. It’s contagious, and it’s definitely a place where you would want to become a regular.
4) The Turn-of-the-Century/Roaring ‘20s – The aesthetic of the time in which “The Hairy Ape” takes place is in full display in the look, sound and feel of this play. From the start of the play during the Industrial Revolution to the Roaring ‘20s, this play has all the quintessential charm of that period yet feels surprisingly modern in the way its presented.
5) Expressionism! – The emotion and distorted realities of post-World War I America come to life with the enthralling mannerisms of the expressionist movement. This play is fierce and attention-grabbing in an artful way, much like a lot of the art of the time in which it was written.
REVIEW – “The Hairy Ape”
by Carol Edger Germain, ColoradoBoulevard.net
This is a starkly staged and beautifully choreographed presentation of the story of Robert “Yank” Smith (played by Haile D’Alan), head coal stoker on an ocean liner, where he is king of his world and rules with brute strength and camaraderie with his fellow laborers, and most of the time remains safely focused in his dark and smokey element, having convinced himself that he’s not hindered by past failures or future possibilities and revels in the “now,” yet he still sees himself as fully ready to meld with the new machine oriented age.
Meanwhile, his innate human desire for validation and acceptance and a sense of place in the world overshadow his bravado and play into his brief interaction with an elitist, “spoiled little rich girl” socialite (played by Katy Davis) visiting the engine room with a vague thought of connecting in a charitable way with this lower class, but who immediately recoils, and makes no secret of her repulsion and fear of the grossly sensual laborer, the “filthy beast.” Her disdain enrages him and he stampedes violently through Manhattan seeking revenge while trying to understand his place in the world.
Although the actor playing Yank is black, the story is not about race relations, it’s about social stratification, and casting a black actor as the lead (a more culturally diverse group of associate laborers would have helped), unfortunately leads to association with our more recent past and our civil rights struggles, especially as the final emotionally-charged interaction is at the zoo between Yank and an ape. Nevertheless, that passing thought did not really impact the effect of the overall story, and the final scene did not lose it’s impact, The presentation is powerful in word as well as physical presence.
The stark set, without physical props, serves as a backdrop for the characters to create their social dance (nearly literally, as the movements of the actors were “conducted” by percussionist Will Mahood, who with his instruments created stop action and slow motion, and sometimes evoked exaggerated actions to convey emotion and chapters of the story. The movements of all the actors are rhythmic and lyrical (the scene of the laborers sitting on a bench as the ship rocks, swaying side to side, had me moving a bit with them and I felt like I could have talked myself into feeling a little seasickness). It is strong, stark, and violent, (and maybe not for everyone), and definitely unforgettable. Looking forward to a second visit to experience this performance again, even though the images are still fresh in my mind.
Eugene O’Neill’s THE HAIRY APE Addresses Social and Class Inequities Still in Place Today
by Shari Barrett, Culver City News
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.
The Hairy Ape
by Will Manus, Total Theater
First produced in 1922, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape has been given an Expressionistic take by director Steven Berkoff. Shouted dialogue and choreographed movement are the order of the day, powered and punctuated by the drumbeats of percussionist Will Mahood. More surreal than real, this production goes all out for high energy and extreme emotion, sacrificing subtlety and complexity for excitement and drama with a capital D.
At the heart of all this frenzy is Yank, the head man in the stokehold of an ocean liner steaming toward England. The hulking, brutish Yank (played by the charismatic African-American actor, Haile D’Alan), has one of the toughest, filthiest jobs imaginable: shoveling coal night and day into the liner’s furnace. The work dehumanizes him and his fellow-firemen (Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, and Paul Stanko); so much so that they spend their time raging against the system — when they’re not drinking, roistering and brawling. Because Yank is the strongest and boldest, he rules over this band of misfits with an iron fist, bellowing his defiance of all authority and power.
When he is snubbed and patronized by a society lady (Katy Davis) — she’s the one who calls him a hairy ape — Yank is driven by class resentment to the point of madness. One of his mates tries to get him to channel his rage by joining a union, specifically the Wobblies (International Workers of the World). But Yank is too much of a loner, a demi-God really, to fit in with an organization, an ideology. All instinct and emotion, he is what the Marxists would call a lumpen-proletariat.
Yank pays the price for his lack of class consciousness and his rugged individualism, and ends up being bested by a true king of the jungle (to specify would be to spoil things for you). Berkoff, whose work with the Odyssey Ensemble dates back thirty years, has put his stamp on this production of The Hairy Ape. It’s loud, broad and violent but never boring or humdrum.
“The Hairy Ape” at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Paut Myrvold, Theatre Notes
Written in the early 1920s, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape puts the chasm between unskilled, brute labor and the idle moneyed class front and center in the most passionate of ways. Yank (Hailé D’Alan in a dominating, physical performance) is the kingpin of a gang of stokers on a trans-Atlantic passenger liner. Toiling in the dim, smoky, dust filled stokehole far below the elegant staterooms of the wealthy, the men shovel coal into the furnaces that heat the boilers that drive the steam engines of the ship. It is grueling, exhausting, soul crushing work. When off shift, the men swill beer and whiskey to assuage the exhaustion of their labor. The semi-literate Yank, speaking in the exaggerated Brooklynese that O’Neill demands, exults in his physicality, savoring his muscular prowess and scorning those who can’t keep up. His mates are an eclectic crew that covers the map of Europe. Per O’Neill, “All the civilized white races are represented, but except for the slight differentiation in color of hair, skin, eyes, all these men are alike.” They consist of a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a German, a Scandinavian, a Brit and an Irishman.
The Irishman, Paddy (the eloquent Dennis Gersten), is the oldest and weakest of the men and rhapsodizes in a poetic speech over the lost era of sail when men were skilled and proud and breathed the salt air on deck and aloft. Yank appreciates the speech but stamps the sentiment as dead in the age of steamships. He glories in the fact that it is his efforts and those of his mates in the stokehole that fuel the glorious speed of twenty-five knots. In his dark realm of sweat, smoke and dust, he is a kind of king.
And from time to time, to the great amusement of his shipmates, Yank sits to ruminate; he “tinks,” in O’Neill’s stage direction, assuming “the exact attitude of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Yank’s vision of himself is shaken when an effete young woman, Mildred (Katy Davis, precise of speech and slim of form), the granddaughter of a wealthy industrialist with pretensions of social service work, asks to be shown the stokehole and the men who labor there. Warned of the dirt and danger, she nonetheless demands to be taken down, where she sees Yank in a fit of fury at having his work interrupted by a sounding whistle. When Yank suddenly turns, she finds herself face to face with a snarling brute of a man. She shrinks back, covering her eyes as her escorts whisk her away leaving Yank in a volcanic stew of anger and humiliation.
In later scenes, Yank is seen out of his element in the streets of fashionable New York gawking at the rich who simply don’t see him; trying to join the IWW (the socialist Industrial Workers of the World); arrested and in jail; and finally at the zoo commiserating with a gorilla (Jeremiah O’Brian).
Director Steven Berkoff, keeping true to the text, has done a splendid job of staging The Hairy Ape in the intimate confines of Odyssey’s Stage 1. The title is reinforced immediately as the crew of stokers (Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, and Paul Stanko) comes on in choreographed steps, shoulders stooped and limbs swinging in a decidedly simian way. Choreographed movement is used throughout the play to great effectiveness. The stokers shovel coal in unison; the East Side rich, coming out of church to stroll Fifth Avenue, move as a unit. Even the monkeys in the zoo have their own precision. And throughout the play, percussionist Will Mahood accentuates the action with vigor and precision.
All the action takes place on a bare, raked platform designed by Christopher Scott Murillo (lighting by Katelan Braymer) with a giant backdrop upon which projections (video design by Ben Hethcoat) appear. Costumes by Halei Parker support both character and period and the sound design by Christopher Moscatiello is ideal from the first pre-show bird calls to the climax.
This high-energy production of The Hairy Ape is as good as it gets.
The Relevance of Berkoff’s ‘Hairy Ape’ on now at the Odyssey
by Ernest Kearney. The Tvolution
The surest way to appreciate Steven Berkoff’s Hairy Ape now playing at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is to have acquaintance with Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name.
O’Neill’s Hairy Ape was first staged in 1922. It falls in what critics and scholars have designated his “second period” which includes All God ‘s Chillun Got Wings, The Emperor Jones, The Great God Brown, Strange Interlude, Days Without End, Mourning Becomes Electra, Lazarus Laughed, and the best known piece from that time-frame Desire Under the Elms.
The Hairy Ape was one of his more experimental works and one that O’Neill stuffed with ideas he wished to investigate. He did not, however, put a great deal of time into the writing of this effort, and, I think, the piece reflects this.
It is, on one level a fascinating hodge-podge of Freud, German Expressionism, the naturalism of Strindberg, Dante’s Divine Comedy, anti-capitalist statements, and Judeo-Christian references, none of which are smoothly blended into a singular mix.
Apparently, O’Neill was aware of this. “I do not think the play as a whole can be fitted into any of the current “isms” he writes:
“It seems to run the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism – with more of the latter than the former.”
The play is divided into eight scenes.
The first four are shipboard. The next four are off the liner.
Yank (Haile D’Alan) is the “hairy ape” of the title. He is a fireman, not the type that puts out fires on land, but of the breed that stokes them aboard ships. In the bowels of an ocean liner Yank feeds the furnaces that propel the vessel through the ocean.
He is a huge brute, a simple man possessed of an almost animal nature. But in the bowels of the ship, these qualities serve to make him the “top man.” And he exults in this world below deck, in the heat, in the stifling coal dust he inhales, in the back breaking work.
He knows his place in this world, and that place is at the top. And no one can shake Yank’s sense of himself, not Paddy (Dennis Gersten) the old Irishman who longs for the lost days of majestic sailing ships, nor Long (Paul Stanko) the agitator.
But when Mildred (Katy Davis) daughter of the owner of Nazareth Steel; the ship’s builder—who while on a voyage with her aunt (Jennifer Taub)—descends into the ship’s lower level, it is the event that shatters Yank’s world.
There in the depths of the liner, at her first sight of him, Mildred screams “filthy beast” in disgust, then collapses into the arms of an officer.
From this, Yank is plunged into an identity crisis that fuels the rest of the play’s actions, and from here O’Neill presents us with a skewed mirrored version of Dante’s Inferno as Yank leaves the lower levels of Hell to travel up into the sun-lit world, seeking not salvation but revenge.
But the world he finds outside holds neither for him. In fact, it holds nothing for him.
Yank’s “Beatrice” does not guide him from despair to salvation, but through a series of cages. The boiler room of the ship is the first, and from there he goes up into the world thru seven scenes, again mirroring a “looking glass” image of Dante who traveled down the seven levels of Hell.
And while Dante eventually finds release, all Yank finds are cages. Cages of the ship’s interior, of jail and of society, until lastly the cage of a zoo.
Yank is a Caliban on an island populated by Prosperos whose power and magic are all economic. Nor is this Caliban bereft of the power of poetic language:
“Dis ting’s in your inside, but it ain’t your belly. It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops. Dat’s me now—I don’t tick, see?—I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see–it’s all dark.”
O’Neill’s idiosyncratic dialogue and the structuring of his scenes are layered heavily on, to where most audiences find The Hairy Ape is a difficult play at best.
Director Steven Berkoff is best known to some as an actor in such films as Octopussy, Beverly Hills Cop, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and a score of others.
But his passion is the theatre and his approach to the works he has staged is to seek the essence of each drama and damn all the rest. This was obvious in his early work such as Greek, his refashioning of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a love story, and shifting the setting to London’s East End.
He has continued this method in his directing of Oscar Wilde’s Salome and Aesschylus’ Agamemnon, and he has not abandoned that tactic in this production.
If one were being dismissive, one could view Berkoff’s Hairy Ape as a genetic slicing of Bob Fosse and Jane Goodall for he draws from both in structuring of his choreography; emphasizing the subservience of the workers to the machine while instilling in them ape-like behavior.
But one can’t be dismissive of this staging for a single reason:
Berkoff carves and edits the scenes down, all to the benefit of the production.
His cast is wonderfully in sync to Berkoff’s intent, especially D’Alan whose performance and physical presence harkens back to the 1930s production when Paul Robeson became the first African-American to play the title role.
Gersten manages to corral the thorny role of Paddy with flair and Jeremiah O’Brian handles the tricky challenge of “the ape” with simian dexterity as well.
The rest of the ensemble Benjamin Davies, Katy Davis, Joseph Gilbert, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, Paul Stanko and Jennifer
Taub skillfully convey to the stage all the extreme demands Berkoff puts on them.
The play works and works well, because Berkoff casts off everything except what is essential.
O’Neill was aware of what matters in the piece, “The symbol makes the play either important or just another play.”
O’Neill filled this work with thoughts, ideas and images.
Some can be discarded as overplayed, such as the repeated stage direction of Yank assuming the pose of Rodin’s Thinker and in the final scene at the zoo, where the “ape” is found in that same pose.
Some thoughts are hardly discernible to an audience today, as they were, barely, back in 1923.
For example, in the dialogue selection quoted above there is the line, “I’m a busted Ingersoll.”
It’s a toss away, but a potent one.
An “Ingersoll” was a type of industrial drill, only it wasn’t a piece of machinery found onboard steam liners, so what the hell is it doing there?
I believe O’Neill was employing a slanted pun to reference Robert Ingersoll, the American philosopher who was quite prominent in O’Neill’s day, if nearly forgotten in ours.
Ingersoll once wrote:
“What is blasphemy? I will give you a definition; I will give you my thought upon this subject. What is real blasphemy?
To live on the unpaid labor of other men — that is blasphemy.
To enslave your fellow-man, to put chains upon his body — that is blasphemy.”
Within the context of this statement, Yank’s line is given a fuller relevance. And within the context of Berkoff’s direction, O’Neill’s play is as well.
The Hairy Ape, The Pajama Game, In and Of Itself
Eugene O’Neill’s Occupy Wall Street Saga
by Myron Meisel, Stage Raw
Class warfare has surged and ebbed in the U.S. public consciousness during harder or more prosperous times throughout the past century, but the distorted perversion that it is something waged by the poor upon privileged victims gets exposed as a disingenuous lie by Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 The Hairy Ape – an anguished cry on behalf the exploited and dismissed. The play is being presented at the Odyssey Theatre in a rare revival, directed by one of Britain’s still-angry old men, Steven Berkoff (Greek, Kvetch).
By serendipitous contrast, the succeeding night I again encountered the conflict between labor and management in a wildly disparate context, Musical Theatre Guild’s whipped-up one-night- stand of the 1955 smash Broadway musical, The Pajama Game — the final show of its 20th season. Both shows’ politics and elemental dramatics have aged considerably, although as period pieces their pertinence persists in stimulating ways, each in their radically distinct forms.
In The Hairy Ape, Yank (the excellent Haile D’Alan, in a daring stroke of casting, given the aggravating overlay of racial overtones in the title’s obliterating denigration) is the alpha male in the boiler room of an ocean liner, a cauldron of physically brutal camaraderie as fueled by testosterone as the furnace is fueled by filthy coal. Self-awareness here may be sorely circumscribed, but it benefits from clear definition. The men embrace their back-breaking work for the honesty by which it validates their masculinity.
A spanner get thrown in the works when a pampered, do-gooder passenger, Mildred Douglas (Katy Davis), pulls rank to pressure the purser to accompany her to visit the sweaty, underworld inferno, which hysterically unnerves her delicate sensibility, moving her in panicked shock to scream the title epithet at Yank for his crude, brutish manner.
Yank can take anything the job or his fellow lads can dish out, whether with bumptious or violent aggression, king of the stokehole, yet his fury at this insult from an entitled female swell utterly undermines his swaggering sense of self. He undertakes revenge for this existential slight, first contemptuously cruising Fifth Avenue in wonderment at the effete upper classes, then volunteering for terrorist duty at the local chapter of the International Workers of the World (IWW, aka the Wobblies), where he’s unceremoniously ejected as an agent provocateur.
Outside his natural realm, the instinctive Yank, whose identity is so obscure to him that he can barely remember his given name, proves ineffectual at purging the stain of his disparagement by asserting his bestial mastery, so dubious outside the workplace. Finally, at the Zoo, he confronts the very embodiment of his debased image in a caged gorilla (a persuasive Jeremiah O’Brien), with whom he disastrously identifies. In attempting to symbolically free himself, Yank unsurprisingly and pathetically proves that as a Man, he is not in fact a Beast.
Relatively early O’Neill (just post-Anna Christie), The Hairy Ape proves predictably clumsy both in structure and expression. O’Neill had first-hand experience of the world he depicts, and he is at pains to render the working-class argot of the era authentically, though the archaic phrases often sound forced, for the all the careful consistency of tone. Despite his prowess as a playwright, O’Neill never displayed much facility for poetry, and here he makes no effort at psychological depth, preferring archetypes to illustrate ideas.
Less evidently under his root influence of Strindberg, O’Neill attempts mightily to assimilate then avant-garde Expressionist and Symbolist styles into an American idiom and a politically radical advocacy. He struggles to marshal his aspirations into a coherent discourse and ends up with passages of undeniable power, occasional glints of originality, and determined daring compromised by undisguised laboriousness. To the extent The Hairy Ape achieves any soupcon of universality, it is inextricably yoked to innovations that tether it relentlessly to its specific period of creation.
Berkoff and his extraordinarly cohesive ensemble realize a physically expressive movement vocabulary that gives a modern sheen to the antique abstractions, so much so that in the opening scene I thought of the biblical turn-of-phrase that the hands may be those of O’Neill, but the voice sounds uncannily like Berkoff’s. (Curious to observe that not a single cast member, least of all D’Alan, boasts a hirsuite chest.) And the unadulterated class hatred that characterizes the author’s disdain for shallow Mildred and her even more awful, patronizing aunt, as well as the other glimpsed creatures of inherited status, are impossible to approach as anything but objects to abominate, although Berkoff presumably has less concern about that problem than more earnestly humanizing directors might, instead staying true to the harsh schematics of the original intent.
Nothing will, nor should, transform The Hairy Ape into a well-made play, as its flaws are so inseparable from its virtues that the feelings of intense sincerity and unrealized ambition just extract from the drama a more nakedly personal revelation, keeping us mindful of its inexorable ties to the more accomplished O’Neill, who never takes the easy way out, whether or not he manages to get where he’s going.
Certainly as an experimental novelty when first produced, and with the unsurpassable casting of Louis Wolheim in the lead, The Hairy Ape was recognized as innovative and original. That’s still discernible, yet measuring its take on class struggle by perceptions of nearly a century later offers insight into our contemporary angst on the same issues of economic and social injustice.