Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review: The Hairy Ape | The Classics Theatre Project | The Core Theatre

Scene from The Hairy Ape
Drew Maggs (foreground) as Yank in The Classics Theatre Project's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. Lloyd Harvey and Louis Shopen in background. Photo by Kris Ikjeri.

Richardson, Texas – Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape effortlessly prefigures some of our ongoing sociological and ecological disasters. It was only a matter of time before The Classics Theatre Project, whose mission is “to produce socially relevant classic works” brought to stage the almost 100-year-old play.

In the dimly lit, sepia-drenched black box of Richardson’s Core Theatre, bare scaffolding lines three sides, caging in the actors. To the far left a house band made up of a drum kit and guitars provides a soundtrack to the drama. The original music by Braden Socia and Petra Milano ranges from reverb-driven lo-fi garage rock to plaintive folk and even Native American-inspired war drumming.

Director Joey Folsom imaginatively highlights the sound design throughout his new adaptation of the show, which he co-produced with Bren Rapp. One way he does this is by emphasizing the workers’ chanteys. The use of music lends a dynamic, multimedia element that both softens the sharper edges of the show’s expressionistic technique while also fleshing out the typically two-dimensional quality of expressionistic action in general. It also helps to bridge the lull between scenes. Stylized choreography supplements the work songs as the men shovel coal into the ship’s belly, though one actor near the back clearly hadn’t learned the moves.

The play opens onto a steam ship’s forecastle before moving on to the promenade deck, the industrialized hell of a stokehole, a corner of New York City’s Fifth Avenue, a prison on Blackwell’s Island, a waterfront union meeting hall, and finally the monkey house at the zoo. The protagonist Yank spends much of the eight scenes of The Hairy Ape questioning where he belongs. The audience easily grasps that even though the scenes may change, the cages of Yank’s mind—and his position in society—never do.

Drew Maggs’ Yank deftly modulates between the gruff and grumble of his lowly position and a cocky self-regard bordering on megalomania. The fluctuations come across all the more powerfully once the wind is successively knocked from his sails by the moneyed class, the police, the union workers, and the gorillas at the zoo.

Jackie Kemp strikes all the right notes in his performance of Paddy, especially in his wistful recollection of life on a sailing ship when “a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one.” Paddy’s reminiscence, no matter how brief, is one of the few moments in the play that offers an alternative vision of the world, and when it’s flat out rejected by the others, he’s visibly dispirited.

Jon Garrard stands out as the agitator Long. And Devon Rose and Janae Hatchett smoothly convey the vapid affectation of spoiled heiress Mildred and her aunt.

Luisa Torres, Rhonda Rose, and Folsom contributed to the set design, and the scene change during intermission was both simple yet really nice. The choice to have Jim Finger’s hazy watercolor mural of the New York cityscape behind the scaffolding makes even clearer that the city, too, is its own type of cage, perhaps just with better grooming.

A favorite scene was the masked crowd clad in funereal black as they come from church, lending the action notes of surrealism peppered with the absurdist repetition of “I beg your pardon,” which registers less as an apology and more as a threat. The prison scene, on the other hand, seems too dark.

In this captivating adaptation, only one thing seems out of place: Yank’s practically omnipresent silver flask, which comes across as a bit too fancy and appears too many times on stage—admittedly a minor quibble for an otherwise strong production.

The show runs through November 6.

Frank Garrett
American Theatre Critics Association, Member

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