By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Monty Cole
Produced by Oracle Theatre, Chicago
Early O’Neill Restored
As often happens, Oracle has already run out of available tickets for their always-free productions in their tiny storefront space. But fear not, on the night I attended, several people on the waitlist were able to get in. They were glad they did, too. Monty Cole’s all-black male production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape is a wondrous display of kinetic energy in service of creating a brutal, nightmarish proletarian netherworld. Expressionism, that well-worn phrase referring to the exploration of the mind by representing its subjective interpretation of the environment, is comfortable territory for Oracle. This new African-American adaptation brings O’Neill’s 1922 early-career experiment into the contemporary world, fully restoring its vitality, while remaining true to the source.
Yank (Julian Parker) works in the boiler-room of an ocean liner. It’s hard, disgusting work, and that’s just the way Yank likes it. Though uneducated, he’s created for himself a philosophy similar to futurism—the celebration of speed, strength, industrial technology, violence, and youth as the highest virtues and epitome of beauty. He scorns an old co-worker who longs for the days when ships truly sailed and crews felt a healthy connection to nature. He also loathes a Christian socialist co-worker whom he regards as a cowardly babbler. But most of all, he despises the weak passengers and officers who are dependent on his labor. When one condescending do-gooder who happens to be a steel tycoon’s daughter descends to have a look around the boiler-room and finds Yank screaming and cursing, she cries out that he is a “filthy beast.” Yank is astonished, and declares that he has “fallen in hate” with her for the insult. Despite his claimed indifference to her and all her class, the woman’s assessment shakes him to the core. He sets off on an odyssey, looking to take his revenge on the society that dares to use him as a tool, and looking for another place where he can feel he belongs to. The more he searches, the more his mind deteriorates.
Cole’s six actors (Parker, Rashaad Hall, Michael Turrentine, Breon Arzell, Tony Sanitago, and Bradford Stevens) first enter the theatre doing a rigorous, percussive step-routine. In the tiny Oracle space, it emphasizes the danger in the men’s work, as well as the dynamism Yank is so enthralled with. Julian Parker interprets Yank as a frighteningly plausible fanatic. His alterations between devious plotting and explosions of violence make him seem more like a crocodile than a gorilla, but the public’s understanding of gorillas has changed a lot since O’Neill’s day. And though Yank is uneducated and emotionally unbalanced, he’s not stupid. Parker delivers his monologues with not only eloquent intensity, but also pride and longing that makes Yank tragically sympathetic. He’s alarming enough that the Industrial Workers of the World are at first unsure whether to peg him as an overacting mole or a genuine crackpot, but he’s also often a victim who refuses to submit, and seldom encounters anyone he can harm who is truly innocent.
The rest of the cast shifts between roles, lending credibility to those which are specific characters (the other workers, the rich women), and emotional heft to both friendly and hostile choruses. Eleanor Kahn’s striking scenic design, a grid of bars for the actors to clamber over, is highly imaginative and spooky, while providing an opportunity for the actors’ energy to flare out in every dimension. The other designers, Joan Pritchard on costumes, John Kelly on lighting, Jeffrey Levin on sound, DeChantel Kosmatka on masks, Zach Livingston on fights, and Breon Arzell on step choreography, create a rapidly shifting world of shadows for the actors to conceal themselves in, while remaining unnervingly omnipresent.
Also noteworthy is Monty Cole’s changing of O’Neill’s phonetically spelled out “Oirish” accents to a more realistic African-American dialect, and his allowance for the actors to adlib transitional and crowd muttering. Besides providing humor, as when the IWW leader quizzes his comrades on what they’ve done with their egg-head glasses, the banter provides a fuller sense of the characters’ humanity. Yank still calls women “tarts,” but the world of the play seems closer to our own, and the dated parts of the dialogue sound acceptably stylized as vocalized by the actors. The use of an all-black male cast emphasizes O’Neill’s critique of class by pointing out its performative nature, while acknowledging that gender, color, and class prejudice are all interwoven. Tickets for Oracle’s The Hairy Ape are hard to come by for a reason; the show brings out the best of a master American playwright for today’s Chicago. But members of Oracle’s sponsor group are guaranteed seats, and this show provides more incentive for theatre fans to join.
Reviewed February 1, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Hairy Ape’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are free; to make reservations, visit publicaccesstheatre.org. Performances are Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights ate 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm through March 12. Running time is eighty-five minutes.