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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Marin Theatre Produces Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape

Also see Richard's review of The Worst of Varla Jean Merman and Knock, Knock


The Marin Theatre has included the rarely performed early Eugene O'Neill expressionistic one act drama, The Hairy Ape, in their current season. The play is full of heavy handed symbols of man as an animal versus man as a machine. The Hairy Ape originally opened at the Playwright's Theatre in New York in 1921, with Louis Woldeim playing the title role. Mary Blair was the wealthy young woman wanting to see "how the other half lives." The play moved to the larger Plymouth Theater with Carlotta Monterey replacing Ms. Blair. Ms. Monterey later became the third Mrs. Eugene O'Neill and they retained a ranch in the San Ramon Valley here in the East Bay. The Hairy Ape ran for 121 performances. Today the play is mostly read by theater majors in universities and is occasionally produced on college campuses. Willem Dafoe and his company produced the drama Off Broadway several seasons ago to mixed reviews. There was also a film version with William Bendix in the role of Yank that was quickly shelved by the studio for being too communistic.

The Hairy Ape is the story of Yank, a 20th Century everyman who finds himself caught up in a struggle of man as an animal vs. man as a machine. He is a strong coal stoker on a large ocean liner and he is the master in his own little world. He is a boisterous man. His language, his strong body, his mind are full of the commanding power that comes with his past. He is free in a world of his own making until the daughter of a wealthy industrialist descends into the bowels of the ocean liner to observe the stokers at work. Yank becomes obsessed with a world that he did not know, a world of capitalism, wealth and "beautiful people." He seeks revenge against all of these when he tries to assimilate into this world and is rebuffed.

In a brilliant scene that takes place in front of a posh jewelry shop on Fifth Avenue, people coming from an affluent church and wearing commedia dell'arte masks ignore him or shove him aside. He is caged by the police as an animal, "disturbing the calm tranquility" of the wealthy class. Yank goes to the fledgling I.W.W. in hopes of joining a "radical" union, but he's rebuffed by the members who feel he's a spy for the capitalists. He finally goes to the zoo where he attempts to connect with an ape who in turn rejects him also.

The Marin Theatre has presented a razor sharp 1 hour 20 minute production with the powerful Aldo Billingslea in the role of Yank. This actor is charismatic as the anti-hero. He has a booming voice and he seems as if he were a volcano ready to erupt. It is a sterling performance. Bethanny Alexander is properly icy in her small role as the daughter of the industrialist. She has a cool, calm manner, and is always dressed in white, implying that the "dirty world of industry" never sullies her life. Joe Bellan, one of the Bay Area's best character actors, is miscast as an old Irish stoker who has seen better days. He is very difficult to understand, especially when he gives his long speech about working on windjammers as a youth. His Irish accented speech does not come over well. Kevin Blackston who has one of the best theater trained voices around, plays several roles, and his voice is captivating. The rest of the cast seems like a Greek chorus of hard drinking, loud masculine men.

This fascinating production by director Lee Sankowich ran through April 7. Marin Theatre's last production of the 2001-02 season, William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw , will open on May 16 and runs through June 9.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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