The Hairy Ape Review – A Timely Take on O’Neill

Run, do not walk to secure your free tickets for the Oracle Theatre Company’s production of The Hairy Ape. It is a truly remarkable night of theatre, not to be missed.

This production was conceived by director Monty Cole, who reimagined O’Neill’s 1920s Irish laborers as the only people actually lower than they were on the American social scale-- African American laborers.  Inspired by the shootings of young African American men and their treatment by police and society at large, this production makes the text about the exploited working class and the 1% even more relevant than it already is. It’s a genius idea that totally pays off in every way. He cast this beautifully and got outstanding performances out of all his actors.

The entire ensemble is incredible, embodying literally everyone from filthy coal-stokers in the bowels of a steamship to Fifth Avenue hoi polloi to trade union organizers, prisoners, brutal cops and even apes in the zoo with immense attention to detail and individualized characterizations. Everyone gets great lines and everyone makes the absolute most of what they’re given, turning in terrific, distinctly different performances for each character. Even when members of this all-male cast portray women, they do it with character in mind and serve up moments that are memorable and fascinating. Every one of them is fabulous, go see Bradford Stevens, Rashaad Hall, Tony Santiago, Michael Turrentine, and Breon Arzell killing it.

You can’t talk about this play without talking about Julian Parker as Yank.  Taking a character that could easily have been a one-note bully, someone who really never learns and never actually understands more even as he sees more and more of the world and making us truly care about him is a remarkable feat. Yank is on top of the world in his group of working-class men. He feels a part of progress, someone who runs the world where his dignity as a hard-working man earning his way is never questioned and is always honorable.

What he doesn’t know is that he is held in contempt by the people at the top. His work means nothing to them.  Yank is typical of so many badly-educated men in marginalized groups, in O’Neill’s day and now. When his pride is insulted in a run-in with a member of the 1%, he reacts with anger and vows revenge, going to any length to save face and restore his injured pride.  Because pride is all he has.

But, as then and now, this course of action doesn’t work out so well for him. Even as Yank’s initial confidence and feelings of self-worth are destroyed, he falls back on bullying and violence to get his way, as he did when he was on top of his small world in the stoker’s quarters. Even as people continue to react badly to violence as a solution, he repeats his mistakes again and again and is led by his anger, to greater offenses, but also to greater despair.  It’s not working, but he can truly see no other course of action.  No way to win. He wants people to recognize is innate humanity, but has no knowledge of any other way to resolve conflict.  Especially as he is a working man who believes that should confer innate dignity. Parker takes us on this journey with raw emotion and gives us a real person of worth who can simply never gain the understanding of a different path because he never meets the right people to help him set foot on it.

The set design of integral to this production and turns the tiny box of the Oracle into the engine room of a steamboat, jail, 5th Avenue, a train, the zoo, among others. The multi level space allows the actors to create some incredible moments and draw focus from area to area.  Bravo to Adia Alli. Also of note are Breon Arzell’s work as step master and Zach Livingston’s fight choreography.  Movement is incredibly important in this show and the work by those who imagined it as well as those who implement it is amazing.

The Hairy Ape runs through March 12.  Admission is free. Go.

For Tickets contact The Oracle Theatre.

Photo Credits: Joe Mazza

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