THE HAIRY APE

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

“The Hairy Ape” is Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Expressionist drama that tackles the questions of class differences and social hegemony in American society. It follows the story of “Hank,” a manual laborer who works in the fiery bowels of a luxury steamship that transports wealthy upper-class passengers on holiday.

In the beginning, the brutish Hank is quite happy with his lot in life. He sees himself as the very essence and driving force of the ship; in many ways, he IS the ship and the ship IS Hank.

But one day his life changes when he comes face-to-face with the dainty and naive daughter of a wealthy steel industrialist who nearly faints when she comes into contact with Hank, whom she refers to as a “filthy beast”. Angered by her reaction, and puzzled by this perceived difference, Hank leaves the ship and ventures out into the world, into Manhattan specifically, where he seeks to find his place in society.  Unfortunately for Hank, the prospects are dim and he ultimately finds that he doesn’t belong anywhere.

O’Neill’s play has come to be considered a contemporary American classic. It has themes that continue to reverberate even in our own times, especially in our own times.  With economic disparity between the upper and lower classes higher than it is has ever been, coupled with a shrinking middle class and the destruction of organized labor unions, “The Hairy Ape” is every bit as pertinent today as it was when it was first written, — the early 1920s, when monopolies ruled and worker rights movements were in their nascent stage.

And this is where director Wilder Nutting-Heath sort of missed an opportunity to bridge the gap between the 80 years that separate the very first production of this play with that of his own. Instead, Nutting-Heath, who states that this production is the “culmination of [his] master’s thesis on masculinity and the collective socialization of men,” is more concerned with the loftier notions of individuation and psychology, — an approach which isn’t entirely off-base, but seems tangential to the larger, more concrete social issues presented.

Why, for instance, in a time when we have movements like “Occupy Wall Street” and “May Day” protests, would a director continue to set the play in the 1920s, where upper class characters were costumed in period style flapper dresses and old-fashioned suits?  Why not contemporize the play? Why not integrate modern technology (digital projections and video) in order to bring in images of modern manifestations of the social issues explored in the play?  Unfortunately, the director remained too faithful to the text, not really daring to stray from the original staging.

This issue aside, Ghost Light Theatrical’s production of “The Hairy Ape” is still quite interesting, thanks, in particular, to the excellent performances by two of the more mature members of the cast: Ed Gangner, who plays the drunken Irishman, “Paddy,” and of course, Richard Carmen, who plays the ape-like protagonist, “Hank.”  Carmen, especially, delivers a powerful and emotional performance in his portrayal of the leading character who seeks to find where he belongs.

The Ensemble also works well together with the stylized movements and expressionistic nature of the play. The work scenes in the furnace of the ship as well as the street scenes with robotic movement were particularly effective.

In short, this is a pretty good, though standard, production of a very interesting and thematically rich play. The company did a competent job of staging this complex work in the less than ideal setting of the Ballard Underground, but I couldn’t help but think how much better it could have been with a bit more daring direction and a lot more money for more elaborate sets, costumes, and effects.

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