Eugene O’Neill: The Hairy Ape. EgoPo Classic Theater, Philadelphia 2015
The mission of the theater company called EgoPo is to convey emotion through body movement. Lane Savadove, the troupe’s founder and artistic director, indicated this when he devised the name by combining the idea of self, or ego, with the French word for skin, peau, re-spelled.
Savadove insists on long rehearsal time and uses a core group of actors whom he trains to bare their souls through the stylized contortions of their bodies. This is the expressionist approach that Eugene O’Neill intended in his The Hairy Ape. He wrote that the actors should be “by no means naturalistic.” Expressionism was a movement, initially in poetry and painting (such as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”) that distorted reality for emotional effect.
Never has the combination of method and content worked more effectively. Brenna Geffers, Savadove’s longtime associate, directs with fidelity to O’Neill’s stage direction that cast members actually look like Neanderthals and move “monkey-like.” They also grunt and wail to express their feelings, adding to the non-verbal communication.
The hallmark of this production is the visceral, energetic, expressive motion of all the actors. The firemen in the bowels of the ship sway to and fro like the waves. Later, workers fall into round-shouldered, circular shuffling as if they are gorillas in a cage.
The Hairy Ape is about the pointedly-named Yank (Matteo Scammell) who is a stoker of coal in the bowels of a luxury ship. A primitive Everyman — or we might call him an everyday American — Yank wants desperately to “belong” to something. He repeatedly uses that word as he proclaims he’s as strong as steel and his labor is what powers the mighty ocean liners. “I start something and the world moves!” he shouts. Deep inside, Yank knows that he is exploited and lacks real function and importance in society.
Every character in the play is similarly crippled. By implication, all of humankind is straight-jacketed. Despite his verbal inadequacies, Yank is a vivid character who strongly communicates this.
O’Neill was criticized in 1921 for denouncing capitalism, and a government agency investigated him. Indeed, the script attacks materialism and the inequality between what we now call “the one-percent” and ordinary workers. (My, how things have not changed.) Yet O’Neill’s text disparages socialists and communists, too. Despite their talk about comradeship, officials of the International Workers of the World are dismissive of Yank’s request to join their union and they offer him no help. While O’Neill pointed out flaws in the capitalist system he also wrote scathingly about socialist movements that can’t fulfill individual needs.
A steel manufacturer’s daughter (Lee Minora) is a passenger on the upper deck. Although wealthy and educated, she is as victimized by class as is Yank and she cannot escape her assigned identity. She shares with Yank the need to find a sense of usefulness. She has volunteered her time to help poor slum-dwellers, and now she wants to observe the men at work below deck on her ship, but she botches the attempt by reflexively recoiling when she sees Yank.
Trying to get even with her for referring to him as an ape, Yank journeys to her home turf of Fifth Avenue where he’s busted by the cops for loitering. Thrown in jail, Yank realizes that the woman’s father built both the physical and metaphorical cage he is trapped in.
Finally Yank goes to the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo where he finds he has more in common with an ape than he does with the human race, and his need to belong is satisfied in a gruesome way. “The Hairy Ape at last belongs” is the final stage direction of the play, indicating that Yank has come home to the animal world, finally discovering the “belonging” he has been searching for.
The Hairy Ape is rarely performed, and some critics say its style and its message are dated. This production proves that’s not so!
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