Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Life in a Cage" (on O'Neill's The Hairy Ape)

life in a cage
by Douglas Messerli

Eugene O’Neill The Hairy Ape / Los Angeles, The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the production I saw was on Sunday, July 24, 2016

I have to admit, I have always had trouble with Eugene O’Neill’s early plays, particularly his 1921 work, The Hairy Ape. American Expressionism (not nearly as sophisticated and developed as the German version—at least until it found its way into the American film noir) is just not my favorite kind of theater. And with his heavy typologies and his embarrassingly clumsy use of dialect, O’Neill’s younger works always slightly embarrass me, as opposed to his great later family dramas.
     I did not have the opportunity, alas, to see the much praised deconstruction of this work by the noted Wooster Group; I keep hoping for a revival or a filming of the play, as they have packaged for their brilliant production of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but in the meantime, while attempting to see most productions of O’Neill plays, I had skirted this one, even after buying a ticket. Finally, I gave in at the very last moment, attending the last performance of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production directed by the British director and actor, Steven Berkoff.
       Berkoff, known for his very physical productions, did not disappoint this time around, transforming the early boozing and singing scenes into a series of choreographed movements for his 9 male ship firemen, at moments, with the percussion accompaniment of Will Mahood, whipping them up into a kind of fiery frenzy, while at other times slowing down the action to a kind of slow-motion line-dance as he lets his hero Yank (Haile D’Alan) try to work out the reality, as the group’s leader, he wants to convey to them.
       The director, the time around, has chosen a black man to play the usually white Yank (real name Robert Smith). The African American actor Paul Robeson did play the same figure in England in the 1930s, but these days there seems a slight danger in that casting, as Los Angeles Times reviewer Charles McNulty pointed out, of associating the “brutal beast” of the play with negative racial implications; this might have been mitigated a bit by having a more multi-racial cast as a whole, but Berkoff evidently didn’t see that as a problem.
       It’s true that all of these men are equally just a step up from the apes, their crouching positions and gorilla-like muscles determined by their hourly activity of stoking coal into the ship’s engines. And the play is not really about racial inequities, but about issues of class.
       In the early scenes Yank is proud of his Prometheus-like role; it is, after all, he and his friends who make the big industries possible; without their endlessly hard labor, there would be no American industry, no ships to grandly sail into New York harbor, as their own steamliner is about to do.
       D’Alan is a splendid example of a human being, a muscular specimen of a man who shows his physical stamina just by performing, in this case, as a jazzed up actor: shouting out his lines yet with emotional significance, he seems to be filled with boundless energy, as he mocks his fellow workers, particularly the drunken elderly Paddy (Dennis Gerstein) who nostalgically recalls the days of sail-driven ships, when the sailors were at one with the sea, instead of being locked up in the dark dungeon of the stove-hole.
      Similarly, Yank has little use for the Marxian ideas of his friend Long (Paul Stanko), for he is a believer, a man proud of his own physicality and ability to cope.
      That is until the wealthy ship-owner’s daughter, Mildred (Katy Davis), dressed entirely in white, mindlessly determines to visit the stoke-hole to see “how the other half lives.” At the very moment she arrives, Yank is haranguing his co-workers with curses for their lack of gumption and grit, while they have stopped in their tracks, awed by the young woman’s sudden appearance. As Yank looks behind him to observe her presence, she mutters something about a beast and swoons into a faint of terror.
       Despite the appellation of a beast, it is Yank, however, who is the true thinker, and the next scene finds him pondering the events, while realizing that to her he was simply a “hairy ape.” Although his friends attempt to console him, even ribbing him with the possibility that he is in a funk because he has fallen in love, Yank suddenly perceives his braggadocio for what it is: he as he friends are nothing but small machine parts in a world that has little place for them.
       The rest of O’Neill’s play is rather didactic triptych, in which Yank attempts to explore what he can do to change his life situation and to find a role in the general society. His first trip is the Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, where the wealthy parade in surreal-like fashion after church. His presence totally ignored by these “swells,” he finally threatens a male of the group, as all present in the small buffalo herd call for the police, who quickly arrive and beat him.
      Berkoff has thankfully dropped the prison scene, and given the speech to Long, the Marxist, to tell his friend of the IWW and the “wobblies,” who The New York Times reports are trying to destroy American industry and society. Believing what he has read, Yank is stupidly ready to sign up.
       But in the second part of the triptych, within the IWW headquarters, after being given a hearty welcome and membership card, he is mocked when he makes his desires to dynamite factories clear. Not only are the wobblies paranoid (suspecting him of being a policeman, a factory stooge, or even from the FBI) but their activities, obviously, are quite different from the newspaper reports. And they quickly toss Yank out into the streets once more.
       Does he have no place in society he asks? No way of entering the “real” world. And here the fact of the actor being black does have resonance. Certainly in the world of the original play there would have no even been a place for him on O’Neill’s Broadway stage.
      The inevitable and truly surreal ending is that he must become precisely that which he has already been turned into by the dominant society. At the Zoo’s gorilla cage, convincingly filled with chattering monkeys and a gorilla performed by his former shipmates, Yank encounters the highly-developed pectorals and muscular arms of fellow actor Jeremiah O’Brian playing the Alpha-male gorilla. What Yank is to his fellow shipmates, this human-gorilla is to his chattering monkey companions. It is almost love at first site, as Yank determines to loose this fellow monster upon the world, breaking open his cage. There is almost something horribly homoerotic about the act, as the gorilla comes toward him in, what a first seems simply to be a hug. Indeed, Yank responds, “I didn’t say you should kiss me,” before he gradually perceives that he is being killed, his body stomped upon again and again until he finally finds his place in death.
       Berkoff’s production is far from perfect, but then the play is, as both director and producer remind us, the work of a very young playwright, still attempting to find his voice. And this production, despite its many excellent moments, demonstrates, once more, why The Hairy Ape is so seldom revived. In the end, I am glad a got to chance to see it—and still will look forward to seeing the Wooster Group version. After all, it was that group which also convinced me that O’Neill’s early sea plays were worth a second viewing.

Los Angeles, July 25, 2016
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (July 2016).       

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