Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Hairy Ape’ powerful but not poetic
By the time he wrote “The Hairy Ape” in 1921, Eugene O’Neill had tired of the literary naturalism of his earlier work. He was now venturing into a form of expressionism that inflates human pathos by layering characters’ speech with visceral and vivid poetry.
It’s this poetry that an otherwise solid Ensemble Theatre production of this play mismanages.
The poetry written for the play’s main protagonist Yank (Joseph Milan) – a musclebound, belligerent and bullying stoker working in the bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner – is primal. It references steel, sweat and fire, is uttered in violent bursts of short sentences, and reinforces the wealthy class’s belief that the working class is comprised of primitives, more simian than human.
Yank’s sense of self-worth is tied to his status as the toughest, strongest and most confident stoker on the ship, which is shaken by Mildred Douglas (Brittany Ganser), the bored daughter of a steel tycoon whose poetry is bloated and flowery. She ventures down into the dark stokehole in her white finery, curious about the men who toil there, but is startled at the sight of the brutish Yank. She calls him a “filthy beast” and leaves in a fit of fear and revulsion.
Among other stokehole denizens is Paddy (Allen Branstein), an Irish boiler room worker who is the antithesis of Yank. Weak, drunken and romantic, he lyrically bemoans the loss of the days of yore on the high seas, when “ships were clippers and the sea was a part of the ship and the ship was us.”
Another is Long (James Rankin), a proselytizing socialist whose wide-eyed skepticism is a perfect counterpoint to Yank’s thick-skulled world-view and whose poetry is grounded in the party line.
Mildred’s outburst shatters, embarrasses and infuriates Yank, and leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighborhoods and back alleys of New York City. Searching for revenge, he soon finds that men like him don’t belong in the modern world. Not even in its zoos where, late in the play, he has a sobering heart-to-heart with a caged ape.
This play is as powerful if not as socially relevant as the day it was written, and director Ian Wolfgang Hinz serves it up on an appropriately minimalist set devised by Walter Boswell with shadowy lighting and dramatic backlighting by Andrew Eckert.
Thankfully, there’s no modernization or artsy reinterpretation – as was done in the controversial 2015 staging at London’s Old Vic and in this year’s production at the Park Avenue Armory in New York – to deviate from the playwright’s detailed stage directions. At Ensemble Theatre, the action takes place on and around a metallic platform from which a steel arch that serves as the ship’s furnace and a New York jail cell protrudes, suggesting the starkness of the human experience.
On this platform struts the square-headed, jut-jawed and solidly built Milan as Yank, who moves like a man convinced that nothing and no one in the world moves without his say-so. Milan’s mastery of his character’s crude poetry and arrogant demeanor is impressive, but the defiance and intensity he exudes only goes so far. There is never a sense of its erosion when Yank is confronted with a world that rejects him or in the final scene where he is lying on the ground after being beaten and broken. This makes it difficult to be sympathetic to his tragedy. He needs to break our hearts, but doesn’t.
More perfect in their portrayals are Rankin as Long and Keith Kornajcik as the head of Industrial Workers of the World who, leery of infiltration, rebuffs Yank’s desperate effort to join the organization. Whit Lowell, Santino Montanez, Kyle Huff, Aziz Ghrabat and August Scarpelli as fellow stokers and Mary Alice Beck as Mildred’s Aunt also do nice work.
Sadly, Branstein as Paddy never quite finds his footing or his accent, and so stumbles through much of O’Neill’s best writing. As Mildred, Ganser’s persistent overacting keeps her character from ever being interesting. Both actors seem to find O’Neill’s dialect, poetry and lengthy monologues way too much of a challenge.
So does Hinz, whose direction doesn’t discover a proper rhythm for this work. It shifts from scene to scene without any ebb and flow. There’s no opportunity in this production’s propulsive momentum to savor moments or absorb what O’Neill has to say.
O’Neill’s writing and Milan’s work in this staging are certainly enough to make this production of “The Hairy Ape” worthwhile. But there is more to be mined from this play. CV
“The Hairy Ape”
WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.
WHEN: Through Dec. 10
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$25, call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 19, 2017.
Lead image: Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino