Written in the early 1920s, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape puts the chasm between unskilled, brute labor and the idle moneyed class front and center in the most passionate of ways. Yank (Hailé D’Alan in a dominating, physical performance) is the kingpin of a gang of stokers on a trans-Atlantic passenger liner. Toiling in the dim, smoky, dust filled stokehole far below the elegant staterooms of the wealthy, the men shovel coal into the furnaces that heat the boilers that drive the steam engines of the ship. It is grueling, exhausting, soul crushing work. When off shift, the men swill beer and whiskey to assuage the exhaustion of their labor. The semi-literate Yank, speaking in the exaggerated Brooklynese that O’Neill demands, exults in his physicality, savoring his muscular prowess and scorning those who can’t keep up. His mates are an eclectic crew that covers the map of Europe. Per O’Neill, “All the civilized white races are represented, but except for the slight differentiation in color of hair, skin, eyes, all these men are alike.” They consist of a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a German, a Scandinavian, a Brit and an Irishman.
The Irishman, Paddy (the eloquent Dennis Gersten), is the oldest and weakest of the men and rhapsodizes in a poetic speech over the lost era of sail when men were skilled and proud and breathed the salt air on deck and aloft. Yank appreciates the speech but stamps the sentiment as dead in the age of steamships. He glories in the fact that it is his efforts and those of his mates in the stokehole that fuel the glorious speed of twenty-five knots. In his dark realm of sweat, smoke and dust, he is a kind of king.
And from time to time, to the great amusement of his shipmates, Yank sits to ruminate; he “tinks,” in O’Neill’s stage direction, assuming “the exact attitude of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Yank’s vision of himself is shaken when an effete young woman, Mildred (Katy Davis, precise of speech and slim of form), the granddaughter of a wealthy industrialist with pretensions of social service work, asks to be shown the stokehole and the men who labor there. Warned of the dirt and danger, she nonetheless demands to be taken down, where she sees Yank in a fit of fury at having his work interrupted by a sounding whistle. When Yank suddenly turns, she finds herself face to face with a snarling brute of a man. She shrinks back, covering her eyes as her escorts whisk her away leaving Yank in a volcanic stew of anger and humiliation.
In later scenes, Yank is seen out of his element in the streets of fashionable New York gawking at the rich who simply don’t see him; trying to join the IWW (the socialist Industrial Workers of the World); arrested and in jail; and finally at the zoo commiserating with a gorilla (Jeremiah O’Brian).
Director Steven Berkoff, keeping true to the text, has done a splendid job of staging The Hairy Ape in the intimate confines of Odyssey’s Stage 1. The title is reinforced immediately as the crew of stokers (Benjamin Davies, Joseph Gilbert, Jeremiah O’Brian, Andres Paul Ramacho, Anthony Rutowicz, and Paul Stanko) comes on in choreographed steps, shoulders stooped and limbs swinging in a decidedly simian way. Choreographed movement is used throughout the play to great effectiveness. The stokers shovel coal in unison; the East Side rich, coming out of church to stroll Fifth Avenue, move as a unit. Even the monkeys in the zoo have their own precision. And throughout the play, percussionist Will Mahood accentuates the action with vigor and precision.
All the action takes place on a bare, raked platform designed by Christopher Scott Murillo (lighting by Katelan Braymer) with a giant backdrop upon which projections (video design by Ben Hethcoat) appear. Costumes by Halei Parker support both character and period and the sound design by Christopher Moscatiello is ideal from the first pre-show bird calls to the climax.
This high-energy production of The Hairy Ape is as good as it gets. It runs through July 17 at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda, Los Angeles.