The Hairy Ape
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
October 4, 2006
Irish Rep's bold staging of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape features an excellent cast, and some unique ideas, but ultimately fails to have as much visceral impact as it could.
The story focuses on Yank (Greg Derelian) a beast of a man who works as a stoker in the bowels of an ocean-going ship. In our first glimpse of him, he is sitting dourly off to the side as his fellows drink and carouse. Every time one of them starts to take centerstage and speak, Yank rises and viciously shouts him down, physically knocking him to the ground and loudly pontificating on the men's place in things. Yank is the undisputed ruler of the heat and chaos of the engine room, and he is secure in his position as Alpha Male, as a man who truly belongs.
His life is severely disrupted, however, by a brief glimpse of Mildred (Kerry Bishe), the socialite daughter of the owner of the shipping liner. Mildred is traveling with her aunt (the very arch Delphi Harrington), and she is a young woman who takes great joy in behaving in ways that she is not supposed to. She insists on being allowed to view the engine room as part of her effort to understand the lower classes. When she appears there, she is a shocking vision, dressed in a diaphanous white gown amid the grime and steam of the engine room. She takes one look at Yank's sweaty, brutish form, calls him a "Filthy Beast!", and has to be carried from the room.
This simple interaction throws Yank's understanding of the world into chaos. He sees the world in black and white terms—those who "belong" and those who don't—and he has always moved aggressively to define himself as one of those who belonged, a member of the working class that makes the ship go. With those two words, Mildred has shattered his belief in himself, and set him on a desperate quest to regain his confidence in his belonging, which will take him into New York to deal with High Society and with Unions, and eventually lead him to the play's climactic encounter with the only being he believes is like him: an ape.
O'Neill's 1922 script focuses a great deal on class, and how the industrial world turns a man into an animal. This is impressively reflected in Eugene Lee's set, which forces the actors in the engine room to walk stoop-shouldered, like gorillas. To me, the human aspects of Yank are more interesting, and Greg Derelian's performance in this role is excellent. His physicality, hunched and strained, suggests a man immensely confident in his physical abilities yet completely insecure about himself. He delivers his lines in an eager bark, his eyes forward, always searching the faces of those he is speaking to for approval and acceptance. He very believably creates the portrait of a man unmoored, unable to find a place for himself.
Director Ciarán O'Reilly introduces a great deal of stylization into the play, which helps deal with some of the trickier sequences, but undermines the impact of key moments. For example, to solve the problem of showing us an engine room on stage, O'Reilly choreographs the actors in a rhythmic, dance-like sequence that is interesting to watch. The problem with this is that when Mildred stumbles upon Yank, what she sees is not a beast unleashed in a chaotic environment, but a man engaged in a carefully choreographed sequence. If we were able to see Yank truly violently let go, the moment of Mildred's shock would be much more effective. I did, however, very much appreciate the choice to have the final scene with the gorilla take place mostly behind a sheet, as it allows us to get used to the idea of a monkey suit onstage and focus more on Yank.
Linda Fisher's costumes effectively recreate the '20s, and Brian Nason's lights create impressive atmosphere. The sound design, by Zachary Williamson and Gabe Wood, features occasional bursts of expressionistic, jazz-like horns that put me more in mind of Ornette Coleman and the '60s than the '20s.
Despite its flaws, The Hairy Ape is an interesting and powerful performance of a rarely seen O'Neill, and is certainly worth a trip to the theatre.