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The Hairy Ape
The Hypocrites
At the Goodman Theatre

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The Hairy Ape
Chris Sullivan
For the latest installment of the Goodman's "A Global Exploration: Eugene O'Neill in the 21st Century," the theater has brought in the enormously talented director Sean Graney and his company The Hypocrites. Graney's creativity is on full display here, with a wealth of ideas, all effective in their own ways, but unfortunately, not all seeming to belong in the same production.

In The Hairy Ape, O'Neill used expressionism to comment on, well, a number of things: class division, the dehumanization of man in the industrial age, the tribal nature of society and its inability or unwillingness to accept the individual. O'Neill's feral protagonist Yank, a stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner, is Neanderthal in appearance but articulate. In the first scene Yank expounds to his fellow stokers on the value the work laborers perform in making the machinery of society move. His perfect comfort with his role in the world is shaken when the daughter of a large steel company visits the stoke hole, is shocked by his appearance and calls him a beast. From that point, he's driven to exact revenge—not on her but on her entire upper class. The second half of the play concerns his adventures on land back in New York in which he's further rejected by society and even by the socialist-leaning Industrial Workers of the World.

The scenes aboard the ship are cleverly visualized, placing the ship's stoke hole on the main floor of the Goodman's black box Owen Theater and portions of the Owen's two seating galleries above it to represent levels of the ship. Tom Burch's realistic sets, dimly lit by Jared Moore, are framed by a border of red neon. The action is accompanied by a moody new agey score and at times distracting ocean-wave sound effects designed by Miles Polaski. Chris Sullivan seems a perfect Yank, both physically and in performance. A big, burly man, he's loud and powerful yet able to show Yank's humor and compassion as well as his rage. Yank's crewmates in this cast bear much less resemblance to the brawny stokers described by O'Neill, for reasons that become apparent when they double as decidedly not-burly ensemble members in the later scenes. Also jarring is the uncertain tone of Jennifer Grace and Stacy Stolz as the steel heiress Mildred and her aunt, which appears intended to be satirical, but doesn't commit fully to that approach. Still, the effect of the ship scenes is to lead us to take serious note of Yank and the laborers of his ilk, and to clearly set the action in the early 20th century, thanks to the costumes designed by Alison Siple.

It's in the scenes on shore where Graney seems to have started directing a different show. On Fifth Avenue in New York, Yank and his socialist crewmate Long (Rob McLean) encounter a group of well-to-do churchgoers presumably leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral. When the ensemble enters dressed in lime green '70s era fashion, the audience burst into laughter, but I would contend it's the wrong kind of laughter. Funny, yes, but mostly borne of the incongruity with the previous scenes. Graney continues in that mode in a scene at the Industrial Workers of the World, establishing the group's effeteness of the group by engaging them in a bake sale, dressed in present-day baker wear and carting a KitchenAid stand mixer on stage.

None of this is apparently untrue to O'Neill's intentions: he shows socialism to be as insensitive to the individual as the upper classes who viewed laborers as expendable resources. And the setting of the action to later 20th century is in keeping with the mission of this O'Neill festival. It's just jarring in juxtaposition to the earlier scenes, and there may be no way to reconcile the lengthy rage-filled speeches of the first half of the short play with the later scenes. Even though O'Neill labeled The Hairy Ape "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes," it's not at all clear throughout that it was intended as comedy or even satire.

Still, O'Neill's ideas are well communicated by Graney and The Hypocrites, with his ensemble as Greek chorus visualizing the conformity of society and contrasting against Yank's distinct individualism. If man is a tribal animal, perhaps the tribes of modern society continue, but are based more along political, economic and philosophical lines than ethnicity or geography.

The Hairy Ape will be performed at 7:30 p.m. February 17, 18 and 19, at 8:00 p.m. February 20 and 21, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on February 21st. Tickets maybe purchased online at GoodmanTheatre.org, at the box office, or by phone at 312.443.3800.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit

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-- John Olson



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