The Hairy Ape is an American expressionist play that explores issues of socioeconomic struggle, the alienation of labor, the shifting definition of masculinity, and the forging of personal identity via the eyes of a working class ship-stoker named Yank. Should you see it?
When I first heard about the Hairy Ape, I was torn: on the one hand, I love Eugene O’Neill’s work but on the other hand, I loathe theater done in pubs, taverns, and bars. A friend convinced me to see this show and I am glad I did. The Hairy Ape is one of the most unique and special productions this city has to offer: it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that has to be seen to be believed.
The first act of The Hairy Ape mainly takes place in the stoke-hold of a ship where our protagonist Yank and his friends work. For those unaware of nautical engineering history, in the days of steamships the stoke-hold was where the boiler, furnace, and coal were kept. Using the simplest of sets (a few buckets and a chair) and the most inspired of lighting, the stage is utterly transformed into this hot, cramped, dirty, smelly place. It’s painfully obvious that nobody would want to work in these conditions but Yank makes the best of it by defining himself by his job and taking pride in the achievements it offers. He philosophizes that without him, the ship would not move and the people above deck would be helpless. He feels strong, manly, and important doing heavy manual labor – until the daughter of a wealthy businessman visits the stoke-hold to see how the other half lives. Her revulsion and horror at the brutish men below sends Yank into a frenzy. He spends the second act enraged and murderous while simultaneously experiencing confusion, sadness, and ultimately despair.
This production features a strong ensemble cast with most actors pulling at least double-duty (acting as the ship’s crew, union representatives, policemen, the working class, the upper class, a gorilla, and more), but Donnie LaFlamme as Yank really stole the show. He was so believable that my mind had a hard time understanding who he was outside of make-up and costume after the show. Laura Hall was also exquisite as the stylized wealthy daughter who unwittingly causes so much chaos in the stoke-hold. What made her character most effective was the way she moved and looked: the make-up in this show is top-notch, particularly when it comes to differentiating the wealthy from the poor.
I needn’t have worried about the venue: The Carleton Tavern works out of two separate rooms so nobody was distracted by late newcomers, hockey games, or loud conversations. This allowed everyone to fully enjoy the rare treat of being so physically close to actors who were so thoroughly immersed in their dramatic world. The tiny stage allowed for creative staging choices and playing in the round, while the dark and slightly dingy nature of the place made the stoke-hold scenes feel that much more cramped and oppressive.
Overall, The Hairy Ape was one of the strongest shows I’ve seen this year: it tells a powerful story in a breathtaking manner, complete with well-thought out production design and an absolutely talented cast.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you thought. Did you feel transported to another time and place, or did the waitress station and stiff bar chairs distract you too much? Was Yank’s personal journey worthy of tears, cheers, or boos? Do you think class struggles continue to exist? Join the discussion and let me know in the comments below.