All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Fueled by an extraordinary performance by Matteo Scammell as Yank, Brenna Geffers’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” for EgoPo is a magnificent example of how expressionistic stylization can perfectly match a dramatist’s script and lead to powerful, exciting theater.
“The Hairy Ape” is a tricky play. Though it comes in the middle of O’Neill’s prolific early period, and O’Neill was age 34 when it was produced in 1922, it remains the work of a young playwright working to find his voice and lacks the majesty of the searing, detailed plays he begins to write with “Desire Under the Elms” (1925) and makes his trademark after “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1931). The play is almost experimental in form and is more akin to an earlier work like “The Emperor Jones” than to the more narrative and intimate “Anna Christie” (both 1920).
“The Hairy Ape” is boldly declarative, with various characters stating clearly their positions and ideas. It has heightened language mixed with the vernacular of the streets, docks, and shipboard stoking rooms where it set. Characters can wax poetic, or they can express themselves in the rough patois of their rough circumstances. Among the most articulate and romantic are fellow prisoners Yank encounters when he serves time in a New York jail.
All kinds of ideas are spouted from an outright, propagandistic socialist rant to Yank’s identification with animals caged in the Central Park Zoo. O’Neill gives his characters firm voices to speak about their individual and common lots, always bringing the focus back to Yank, the plain-spoken, quick-tempered roughneck who is unimpressed with his companions’ maunderings, especially those of the Wobblies who organize the Industrial Workers of the World, are as haughty as anyone Yank meets, and make him feel, as he frequently says he feels, as if he “doesn’t belong.”
Yank isn’t so much trying to find himself in the modern context as he is looking for kinship with other humans. He can drink and swear and keep up with the generally ridiculing humor in a ship’s hold where he is one of a team keeping a fire going as it carries passengers across the Atlantic. He’s a good, reliable worker who won’t say more out of turn or get into more fights than anyone else. On land, though, he is, to put it figuratively with tongue planted in cheek, “at sea.”
Yank has had a Dickensian upbringing. He was born and put to work. There was no nurturing or coddling. There were no love. There was only, “You brat,” “do this when I tell you,” and cuffs and beatings in lieu of praise or hugs. His childhood leaves Yank coarse but not without feelings, particularly the sensitivity of the lower classes to take almost anything as a slight and be wary about what they regard as disrespect or snobbery. His youth has also made Yank strong. He can shovel coal faster and lift heavier bales that anyone else. He can even bend prison bars and effect his escape from jail.
Simple as he may seem, Yank is a complex character, and, in a bravura turn, Matteo Scammell exposes every nuance of his psyche and personality, from his quickness to refute what he regards as nonsense and enter into arguments to his riveting and eloquent statement of who he is and what he needs as “The Hairy Ape” concludes.
Scammell’s touchingly brilliant work is the centerpiece of a production that exudes creativity while remaining direct and letting various characters’ sentiments be heard. Lighting by Matt Sharp and a deceptively sparse set by Thom Weaver allow Geffers to establish mood and atmosphere. Weaver’s open, raked. solidly planked stage can become claustrophobic when characters are huddled in the stoker’s room. It can become eerily evocative as prison with Yank center stage yet conveying confinement while on both sides of the stage, other cast members are perched on platforms and grasping poles as they portray inmates in their individual cells, speaking everything from poetry to news reports as they warn Yank not to incur the wrath of the cell block’s guard.
Sharp’s lighting suggests a dampness in that prison sequence that adds to the discomfort of the jail. Weaver’s set can also pass for fashionable Fifth Avenue, just by bringing up Sharp’s lights and having people stroll by.
Yank is useful. He is an able seaman and a muscular stoker who can keep up with the ship’s needs and make up for slower or less diligent work by his shipmates. He can earn a living, but he and other stokers talk about being stuck in the hold by the furnaces while passengers are able to enjoy the fresh ocean air.
It’s 1922, so many accept that as the way of the world. One in the furnace room with Yank has other ideas and advocates socialism in a way that makes you think O’Neill is making personal statements as he writes for the character, especially late in the play, when he (she in Geffers’s production in which the part is played by Colleen Corcoran) lets loose with a rousing propagandist diatribe that is fitting for the twenties (decade and age) and that is, by current standards, almost comic in its ferocity and innocence. (Unless, of course, you believe in such crap.)
In the propaganda sequence, and others, Geffers is deft at isolating the focal character, giving him or her a spotlight, and letting her production become presentational. Her approach brings out the immediacy of a moment and makes anything a character says or does intense and personal in a defining and attention-getting way. All ideas O’Neill includes in “The Hairy Ape” get their due. Geffers is mesmerizingly adept as keeping her production as ensemble piece and giving O’Neill’s words careful emphasis while never letting us lose sight of Yank or remain unclear about his thoughts and reactions.
Yank mostly dismisses what he hears. He is taken with what his socialist buddy has to say until he hears something he thinks infringes on his freedom, and he lashes out, affirming his individualism. The same happens when Yank, newly out of jail, goes to the office of I.W.W. and is dismayed by how much of himself he would have to surrender to be part of movement of which he becomes suspicious. The I.W.W. secretary, played with dripping hauteur by Maria Konstantinidis, also expresses no use for someone who challenges the organization’s tenets and won’t succumb to doing its bidding even if it seems contrary to one’s interests. Yank, once more, is left to ponder where he belongs and to bemoan the impression he doesn’t belong anywhere.
O’Neill, meanwhile, makes you curious about his own stand in regard to politics. It seems as if he is giving the ardent socialist full rein because he sympathizes with her ideas and advocates some measure of socialism. As least as the scene goes at EgoPo, he seems to be lampooning the supercilious stance of Konstantidis’s secretary and, for once, lets Yank be the one who understands and reacts accordingly.
From the beginning, Geffers’s production grips you. It is intimate and immediate, yet it has scope. You see the bigger picture and you concentrate on the details that set characters apart, in speech and in ideas. You are drawn to the scene at hand and impressed with the size and exactness of performances while being able to put them is perspective.
The production engrosses and provokes thought. You take in all that is happening while thinking of the various fates and activities of humankind and listening to both small-minded and expansive points of view.
Yank is one of the more limited characters. To Scammell and Geffers’s credit, he has no idea about how limited he is. He judges all from his own experiences and stick with what he thinks and feels rather than considering what others may have to say about a matter. He can be touchy and respond physically or crudely to an idea and suggestion that doesn’t fit with his understanding of the world. Scammell shows Yank always on the lookout for a comment or behavior he thinks is daft or outlandish. His life has been a hardscrabble route to maturity and hard labor stoking a ship’s fire. He doesn’t know softness or recognize subtlety, so everything to him is black-and-white. Variations irritate him, and even when another person’s notions are no more advanced or closed-minded that his, Yank scowls and dismisses anything that goes contrary to what he’s gleaned in life.
The crux of Yank’s unshakable torment is being called a “hairy ape” by a New York debutante who is given a tour of the ship’s boiler room and is friendly to Yank before he, out of both naivety and nature, misinterprets her kindness for interest or attraction.
The words “hairy ape” haunt him. When the ship docks in New York, he seeks the debutante, on whom he’s developed a crush in addition to his enmity, to show her he is not a “hairy ape.” He’s a human, not an animal. He has feelings. He may be rough but he is not deserving of scorn or name calling.
Yank knows he doesn’t belong on Fifth Avenue, but he’s uncomfortable everywhere. There is no home for him. The boiler room on a ship may provide purpose, income, and shelter, but it’s not a home.
To his mind, Yank deserves a girl and is good enough for a debutante, even if he doesn’t belong. The idea he was compared to an animal, referred to as animal, angers and obsesses him. Scammell shows the tearing apart Yank experienced. To the actor’s credit, he does so in a way that makes you empathize with Yank and hope he receives some warmth and kindness while clearly portraying the undomesticated brute Mildred, the ingénue, and others see.
Scammell is like a serious, humorless Popeye, who has strength, can do a job well, and has a measure of self-esteem but, unlike Popeye, cannot get people to look past his plangent primitiveness to access him or to requite any affection or regard he may express.
Yank’s journey is one of rejection. He can fit for a time in a barroom or something where men are gambling and drinking. He makes one with the company in a ship’s hold. In the wider world, he’ right; he doesn’t belong.
Scammell plays this alienation well, Yank can be social and sociable to a point, but he can turn combative on a dime and lash out with fists and teeth gnashed as a first response. The prison guard is quick to tell him there is a place where he belongs, in jail where he’s sentenced to a few months for disturbing the peace.
As played by Scammell, we can’t agree.. He endows Yank with an air of freedom. He’s a creature of nature and belongs in the open even if he has to make his living in a closed pit. O’Neill includes a scene in which Yank goes to the zoo and speaks to the animals kept in cages and maintained solely for exhibition. He commiserates with them, especially the apes. His speech becomes a kind of anthem, and Scammell again rivets while delivering it.
Geffers’s production is both gritty and polished. There’s an elegance to the long, wide planks Weaver laid as a stage, almost as if it is a gangplank from which Yank must go from the slight but genuine security of the ship into the wide, wide world. You see the rawness in Yank and others. You also experience a sophisticated production that uses the elements of theater so expertly in telling O’Neill’s story and bringing it to vivid, engaging life.
Perhaps one of the most subtle but evocative touches was having Lee Minora’s Mildred, the woman for whom Yank feels such attraction and resentment, hover on a white platform upstage center, where she seems to observe his time in New York from a handy perch, even while Yank is in jail. Minora gives constant signs of taking in Yank’s motions and rebuffs but shows no expression or reaction to what she witnesses. It’s chilling, and oh so perfect for O’Neill’s theme and Geffers’s approach.
Geffers presides over an excellent ensemble that realizes her vision and is afforded individual moments to expand on given characters and to show range and talent. This group includes Corcoran, Minora, Konstantinidis, Steven Wright, Amanda Schoonover, Chris Anthony, Carlo Carpenter, and Langston Darby. Throughout the production, the cast participates in creating ambient sounds ranging from the ship’s engine firing to whispers. These, and other sounds, are designed by Geffers, Konstantinidis, Matt Lorenz, and members of the ensemble.
One irony. Though the play is called “The Hairy Ape,” Scammell and his fellow cast members, Anthony in particular, are waxed, shaved, and barbered so not one follicle shows. They still look rough and masculine, but I found the nod to modern grooming funny under the circumstances.
“The Hairy Ape,” produced by EgoPo Classic Theater, runs through Sunday, April 26, at The Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street (7th and Spring Garden), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $30 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 267-273-1414 or by visiting www.egopo.org.