Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 play THE HAIRY APE, now in an energetic production by EgoPo Classic Theater, is subtitled “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes”. O’Neill allegorizes the predicament of “modern life” through industrial worker Yank (Matteo Scammell), diffusing his expressionistic work with au courant Marxist social commentary. The challenge for EgoPo director Brenna Geffers was to make a play which must have been theatrically and politically radical a century ago relevant to a 21st-century audience.
Geffers’s solution is two-fold: She has her fine cast eschew naturalism for physically dynamic emotional expression. And she tries to universalize the alienation of modern society by extending O’Neill’s recurring metaphor of our caged existence to the highest strata of class. She succeeds in the first aim, giving us a rich theatrical experience which glosses over the mixed effectiveness of her second aim.
The play opens with Yank in his element: the stokehole of an ocean liner. He revels in its heat: “Hell sure, dat’s my favorite climate. I eat it up! I git fat on it! It’s me makes it hot! It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move!” (With Yank’s dialog, O’Neill attempts to capture 1920s working class dialect. Scammell’s interpretation, reminiscent of a hardman from a 1940s American movie, is fittingly affected without ever being cartoonish.) Yank embodies youth, industrial society, and the New World. He is contrasted with his older, Old World shipmate Paddy (Steven Wright) who gives his own powerfully engaging monolog longing for the simpler days of the clipper ship.
When well-meaning Mildred (Lee Minora), scion of steel-making aristocracy, insults Yank on a visit to the ship’s depths, he goes on a pilgrimage to “show her who’s an ape”. He sees the riches of Fifth Avenue, gets thrown in jail, is shunned by labor organizers who take him for a spy, and ends up at the gorilla cages of the zoo—he is caged by the industrial machine, he’d be caged as a primitive man, and he doesn’t fit in anywhere.
O’Neill is best remembered for his late-career realism (A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Day’s Journey into Night), which Americanized the naturalism of Swedish playwright August Strindberg (Miss Julie, The Creditors). THE HAIRY APE is more reminiscent of Strindberg’s late work (Ghost Sonata, A Dream Play), experimenting with the form and purpose of theatrical representation to communicate its themes.
In his stage directions, O’Neill instructs that the treatments “should by no means by naturalistic”. A more flexible reading of this direction, which does not preclude some elements of grounding realism, may have better communicated O’Neill’s message of social alienation. But Scammell thrives under Geffers’s direction, carrying the play with a spirited and engaging performance that maintains our attention and lays bare Yank’s emotional journey. Colleen Corcoran as social-conscious worker Long and Langston Darby as Second Engineer also stand out with their physical expressiveness.
As Mildred, Lee Minora sees extended stage time in a limited role, but much of it is as a backdrop in Thom Weaver’s stark yet evocatively barred set. She is a figure in white, standing in a raised cage. Geffers seems to be saying it’s not just the workers of this world who are imprisoned by their existence. Audience members can judge for themselves how convincing they find this interpretation, but Minora’s angelic presence is welcome as an expression of Yank’s unfulfilled search for belonging. (“I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me… Where do I fit in?”). Even if we find our place, it is liable to be in a cage. [The Latvian Society, 531 N 7th Street] April 8-26, 2015; egopo.org.