The Irish Rep has made the excellent decision to leave "The Hairy Ape" alone. Despite premiering in 1922, Eugene O'Neill's expressionistic drama doesn't need a modern interpretation to be surprising: It just needs a production willing to honor the playwright's complex stage directions and political rage. Director Ciaran O'Reilly does both. Most importantly, he never lets us mistake this play for naturalism.

The Irish Rep has made the excellent decision to leave “The Hairy Ape” alone. Despite premiering in 1922, Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic drama doesn’t need a modern interpretation to be surprising: It just needs a production willing to honor the playwright’s complex stage directions and political rage. Director Ciaran O’Reilly does both. Most importantly, he never lets us mistake this play for naturalism.

From the moment we see Yank (Greg Derelian), the lead coal stoker in the belly of an ocean liner, we know his humanity is slipping away. Crushed by the low ceiling of Eugene Lee’s set, Yank and his crew are forced to stoop like primates as they feed the furnaces. Occasionally, one of them clambers over a bench like an athletic chimp, or the entire group howls in unison.

But the beastly gestures aren’t overstated. They flicker long enough to register, and then it’s back to Yank’s speeches. He says he “belongs” in the stokehole and that he runs the world by delivering its fuel. However, the apes onstage contradict him. Yank screams he’s a man, but his thankless work makes him an animal.

He glimpses the truth when Mildred (Kerry Bishe), a society lady, descends below decks and screams at the sight of him (Derelian’s massive physique could certainly terrify). Yank’s pride shatters, and he spends the rest of the play on two missions: He wants to punish the class that made him feel small, and find a place that will restore his sense of belonging.

Poor slob. He just doesn’t get it. Derelian makes Yank an innocent, barreling through scenes like a child. We see his bewilderment as one group after another alienates him — Fifth Avenue shoppers, prisoners, union recruiters — but there’s never a moment of recognition. Instead, thesp projects hope that each new crowd will make him feel wanted.

Derelian’s emotion is a heartbreaking counterpoint to the rest of the production, which grows increasingly expressionistic. On Fifth Avenue, for instance, Yank slugs wealthy shoppers, but the glassy-eyed actors don’t even acknowledge him, let alone react to the punches.

The cast seem even less human in the following prison scene, when Lee places them in a wall of cages like dogs in a kennel. Writhing on their stomachs, growling their lines, with their voices distorted by microphones, the ensemble becomes a dreadful reminder that people get trapped in lower classes. Only Yank doesn’t see the futility of fighting his position.

Dark as it is, though, the staging stays vital. O’Reilly uses metaphor to deliver staggering moments, like the final seconds of Yank’s time in the ship. After Mildred insults him, he screams that he’ll kill her. To keep him from running upstairs, the stokers pile on top of him, their sooty bodies in an artful human mound. An old sailor stands just behind the dogpile, head hung low, and the tableau freezes. For a few beats, the crushing power of society is perfectly expressed.

The lone shallow turn comes from Bishe. In a scene without Yank, Mildred and her aunt lounge on the ship’s deck, discussing Mildred’s desire to do charity work. Bishe plays her as a brat who thinks she’s superior to the wretches she could help. That’s a fairly common take, since the play is often interpreted as an indictment of the wealthy.

However, O’Neill’s language suggests Mildred is just as lost as our hero. She, too, feels out of place in her class, and she foolishly thinks time with the poor will rescue her. She isn’t Yank’s opposite; she’s his parallel, insisting that America’s class system warps people on every level. If Mildred were played with sympathy, her scene could match the rest of this production’s force.

The Hairy Ape

Irish Repertory Theater; 134 seats; $55 top

Production

An Irish Repertory Theater presentation of a play in one act by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly.

Creative

Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Linda Fisher; lighting, Brian Nelson; sound, Zachary Williamson and Gabe Wood; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Janice M. Brandine. Opened Oct. 5, 2006. Reviewed Oct. 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Yank - Greg Derelian Mildred - Kerry Bishe Long - David Hansbury
With: Jason Denuszek, Gerald Finnegan, Delphi Harrington, Jon Levenson, Allen McCullough, Michael Mellamphy, Kevin O'Donnell

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