Express­ing inequality

Eugene O’Neil­l’s Hairy Ape’ at EgoPo (2nd review)

In
3 minute read
A botched attempt to communicate: Scammell and Minora. (photo via theatrephiladelphia.org)
A botched attempt to communicate: Scammell and Minora. (photo via theatrephiladelphia.org)

EgoPo’s mission is to convey theatrical emotion through body movement. This is reflected in the troupe’s name, created by founder and artistic director Lane Savadove by combining the idea of self, or ego, with the French word for skin, peau, spelled phonetically. He insists on long rehearsal time and uses a core group of actors whom he trains to bare their souls through the stylized contortions of their bodies.

Savadove’s approach is in the tradition of Expresssionism, the artistic movement, initially in poetry and painting (such as Edvard Munch’s Scream), that distorted reality for emotional effect. Eugene O’Neill intended an Expressionist approach for The Hairy Ape, writing that the actors should be “by no means naturalistic.”

Never has the combination of method and content worked more effectively. Director Brenna Geffers, Savadove’s longtime associate, honored O'Neill's stage instruction that cast members actually look like Neanderthals and move in a "monkey-like" way. The performers also grunted and wailed to express their feelings, adding to the nonverbal communication. The hallmark of this production is the visceral, energetic, expressive motion of all the actors. The firemen in the bowels of the ship sway to and fro like the waves. Later, workers fall into round-shouldered, circular shuffling as if they are gorillas in a cage.

Social straitjackets

The Hairy Ape is about the pointedly named Yank (Matteo Scammell), a stoker of coal in the bowels of a luxury ship. A primitive Everyman, Yank wants desperately to belong to something as he proclaims he’s as strong as steel and his labor is what powers the mighty ocean liners. “I start something and the world moves!” he shouts. Deep inside, Yank knows that he is exploited and lacks real function and importance in society. Every character in the play is similarly crippled. By implication, all of humankind is straitjacketed. Oddly — despite his verbal inadequacies — Yank is a vivid character who strongly communicates this.

A steel manufacturer’s daughter, Mildred (Lee Minora), is a passenger on the upper deck. Although wealthy and educated, she is as victimized by class and unable to escape her assigned identity as Yank is. She shares with Yank the need to find a sense of usefulness. She has volunteered her time to help poor slum-dwellers, and now she wants to observe the men at work below deck on her ship, but she botches the attempt by reflexively recoiling when she sees Yank.

Trying to get even with her for referring to him as an ape, Yank journeys to her home turf of Fifth Avenue, where he’s arrested for loitering. In jail, Yank realizes that the woman’s father built both the physical and metaphorical cage he is trapped in.

Finally, Yank goes to the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo where he finds he has more in common with an ape than he does with the human race, and his need to belong is satisfied in a gruesome way. “The Hairy Ape at last belongs" is the final stage direction of the play, indicating that Yank has come home to the animal world, finally discovering the belonging he has been searching for.

The one percent

O’Neill was criticized in 1921 for what was perceived as his denunciation of capitalism. Indeed, the script attacks materialism and the inequality between what we now call “the one percent” and ordinary workers. (My, how things have not changed.) Yet O’Neill’s text disparages socialists and communists, too. Despite their talk about comradeship, officials of the International Workers of the World are dismissive of Yank’s request to join their union, and they offer him no help. While O’Neill pointed out flaws in the capitalist system, he also wrote scathingly of socialist movements that can't fulfill individual needs.

The Hairy Ape is rarely performed, and some critics say its style and its message are dated. This production proves that's not so.

For Naomi Orwin's review, click here.

What, When, Where

The Hairy Ape. By Eugene O’Neill. Brenna Geffers directed. EgoPo Classic Theater. Through April 26, 2015 at the Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia. 267-273-1414 or www.egopo.org.

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