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Irish Rep Revives an O'Neill Classic
Gregory Derelian. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
"The Hairy Ape" by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd St., between 6th and 7th avenues
Oct. 5- Nov. 26, 2006
Wed. thru Sat. 8 p.m., matinees Wed., Sat. and Sun. 3 p.m.
$55 and $50 (212) 727-2737
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons
When Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape" was first performed in Greenwich Village in 1922, the playwright was just coming into prominence and American audiences knew little about expressionism in theatre. Over eighty years later, O'Neill is considered one of America's greatest playwrights, and expressionist drama is performed (not always well) throughout the theatrical world. None of this, however, makes The Irish Repertory Theatre's revival any less fresh and compelling.
The production is directed by Ciaran O'Reilly (Irish Rep's "The Field") and stars Greg Derelian as the ill-fated coal stoker, Yank, whose search for a place where he can belong leads to his destruction.
Derelian has mastered Yank's brutish gait and coarse language. He moves around the stage like a caged beast, but a beast that is well-rehearsed in O'Neill's expressionist intent. Despite Derelian's praiseworthy performance, however, one might easily say that the most dramatic feature of this production is the stage itself, created by Eugene Lee.
Lee uses a platform that is raised and lowered to separate well-heeled society from the denizens who toil below. Lighting designer Brian Nason's footlights and well-placed spot do the rest.
The scenes in the stokehole and the upper class deck are particularly effective at setting the brutal, hopeless tone of the play and contrasting the lives of the idle rich and the working poor. While the grimy, sweating, swearing and mostly drunk men feed the fires below, Mildred (Kerry Bishe) and her aunt (Delphi Harrington), dressed in spotless white (Linda Fisher is the costume designer), lounge on deck chairs.
Yank's search for identity and belonging begins after he is traumatized when Mildred, the spoiled daughter of the ship's owner visits the stokehole to see how the other half lives. Her fright and disgust enrage Yank.
Convinced he is no more than a hairy ape and looking for revenge and vindication, he leaves the ship and wanders through Manhattan. His journey takes him to a sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, lands him in prison, brings him to a union hall (where he is mistaken for a spy and beaten up) and ends in the Bronx Zoo where he tries to commune with a real hairy ape and finds out that they are not exactly brothers.
Of course, nothing that happens in "The Hairy Ape" is much like real life, and O"Reilly fully exploits the expressionistic nature of the play. The characters often speak their lines in a rhythmic chorus. The action is well choreographed. Both the rich and the poor seem to be puppets pulled by invisible strings and behave according to some unwritten script.
The Irish Rep's "Hairy Ape" is certainly more sophisticated than anything O'Neill could have imagined in his Greenwich Village theater. But don't be fooled by bewitching stagecraft. This "Hairy Ape" is as true to its creator as an ape is true to its nature.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank
Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” was the playwright’s favorite. The 1922 play still radiates pheromones few creative directors can resist. It invites artistic interpretation yet is almost fool-proof. One draw is the delicate balance of surrealism, expressionism, naturalism, and comedy. Then there are all those design possibilities. Of all the production I have seen, the one at the Irish Repertory Theatre is among the best.
The theme is classical: class struggle and the transformation of a lower-class brute into a flawed thinker. Yank, the protagonist, has fallen so far from the civilized world that he forgets his name is Robert Smith. He is a semi-literate laborer, who is awakened to the economic realities of American life by the revulsion of Mildred (Kerry Bishé), a spoiled, beautiful socialite dressed in summer whites. Caught between a romantic past, when sailors worked under the stars (represented by the aging Paddy, played by Gerald Finnegan), and a romanticized future, when the workers will rise to claim their rights for a living wage and better working conditions (represented by the socialist Long, played by David Lansbury), Yank (Greg Derelian) exults in his stamina and strength. Paradise is now, and he is steel, the force that moves the country. His fellow stokers echo and celebrate him while getting drunk in the forecastle. Ironies abound. In the eight scenes of the play, Yank journeys through a variety of experiences to discover his place. A visit to the Wobblies (IWW, a trade union), a Fifth Avenue encounter, a stint in jail, and finally a freed gorilla are his cruel teachers.
Design as metaphor, however, trumps (and reinforces) the polemic and the plot. And since this is an O’Neill play, agit prop soon leads beyond the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised to questions about Yank’s place in the universe. Some production teams, excited by the masks in Scene Five, have dressed the millionaire strollers for a colorful Fashion Week parade. One designer went so far as to plume and mask Mildred and her disdainful aunt as giant, cawing birds. Another favorite is the ape metaphor. Directors have converted Yank and the bent-over stokers into simians that screech, scratch, and climb the scenery. The cage imagery is one of O’Neill’s most inspired motifs. One student group, taken with the scene where Yank and the crew feed the fiery furnace of the transatlantic liner, employed Halloween lighting throughout.
Contemporary directors have to figure out how to make O’Neill plays new. The trend is to cast hunks, not brutes, as O’Neill heroes, while continuing to emphasize the set as metaphor -- as the playwright intended. Playing Yank, the classically trained Greg Derelian dominates the small stage at the Irish Repertory Theatre. His performance is intelligence and intense – and it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He’s muscular, handsome and burning – with rage, with uncertainty, with his need to belong somewhere. Even when he’s beaten by the police, he does not loses that core of self-possession that makes him master of his destiny. His favor pose as the Thinker is less and less ironic – until the final tableau when the gorilla replaces him. Then the play’s existential questions begin again. In the 1920s O’Neill liked to leave his plays open-ended, with question marks.
Under Ciarán O’Reilly’s able direction, Yank and the sailors, who, in multiple roles, form the chorus for his tragedy, live in a constricted world. Designer Eugene Lee renders this not just by the low ceiling in the forecastle, where the men can only stoop, but by their tiered bunks that are too narrow for their bodies. When Yank is arrested, he and the other prisoners have been shoved into chicken cages, three rows atop each other, impossible for a man to even stoop. Ironically, once Yank is released to continue his journey, he remains a prisoner of his mind. He half-recognizes allies but can’t connect. The union officers in their vests, workman caps and rolled up sleeves work near a poster with a half-naked man standing tall and the words ONE BIG UNION. The poster is an ironic comment on the scene, in which the Wobblies eject him for his terrorist fantasies. Yank’s befogged rage leads him to the zoo. There the hydraulic stage rises to reveal the gorilla in his cage and Yank makes his last gesture toward freedom. The encounter is played in shadow behind a scrim.
Sound design by Zachary Williamson and Gabe Wood work hand-in-glove with Brian Nason’s lighting to create a hellish environment. The stokers are engulfed by dissonance and ruled by machines wherever they go: steam hisses, banging, their shouts, laughter, cacophonous songs, the heavy pulses of engines, whistles and bells. Noise rules. Bells signal their work shifts; whistles warn them. We see them live covered with coal dust and sweat in the steamy dark rooms, lighted by dim bulbs or the red glare of the furnaces. In jail, Yank must read by candle light. Darkness becomes a motif. Breaking with tradition, designer Linda Fisher dresses the Fifth Ave. strollers all in black and indicates their wealth with costume textures.
Rhythms become another class distinction. Wearing one expression, the sailors form a parade of ape-like men off to work. They join in a machine-like dance as their flex their muscles to feed the furnace, then turn in unison so other firemen can replace then. Their speech, even their laughter, has a metallic, self-mocking rhythm: t’ink, love, god, ha ha. On Fifth Ave., the shoppers break into a slow. stylized spin around the belligerent Yank before moving into a ballroom dance with the fur-clad manikins in the windows.
These production elements are not frills superimposed upon a script but a shorthand and elevated aesthetic that reinterprets the theme of the play. Through them and the very fine performances, Yank’s tragedy becomes palpable, immediate – and personal.
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