When Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape debuted in 1922, it caused quite a stir. The mayor of New York tried to shut down the original production, worried it would inspire labor protests, and even the FBI noted the work was dangerously close to being radical propaganda. Nearly a century later, this rarely produced, expressionist examination of class divides, currently in a first rate production at LA’s Odyssey Theatre, still resonates.
The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank (Haile D’Alan), a brutish, uncivilized laborer who works stoking the engines of a ship. He is confident in his ability to do his job and in his influence over his equally unsophisticated colleagues. One day, Mildred (Katy Davis), the uppity, spoiled daughter of a steel tycoon, visits the ship and sees Yank in action. She is horrified and frightened at this glimpse of how the other half lives. Ashamed and realizing Mildred looked at him as if he was a “hairy ape,” Yank realizes he has no idea where he belongs in the world, and sets off on an ill-advised journey through New York City to get revenge and reestablish his sense of identity.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s fantastic production of this very physical play places a strong emphasis on the symbolism of the lower class as barely removed from apes. The way the ensemble moves across the stage recalls this comparison in every moment of the piece. It is understandable that labor unions found it so appealing—it shines a light on the intense, dehumanizing labor conditions of the time, and paints a very unflattering portrait of what we would now refer to as the one percent.
As the play continues, the story becomes increasingly surreal in nature. Although I perhaps should have in hindsight, I did not see the brutal, shocking end coming—the final sequence is one that will stick with you. Steven Berkhoff’s direction is inspired, making the most of the sparse, open set, which leaves room for the extensive physical movement required of the actors.
I could go on all day about D’Alan’s powerhouse lead performance, a large part of this production’s effectiveness. It’s a role that must take an exhausting physical toll on the actor—Yank speaks almost exclusively by yelling, and is nearly constantly at a boiling point of physical anger. As he devolves throughout the course of the piece, you can’t take your eyes off of him, even when the scene is so horrifying you may want to.
Interestingly, the questions raised in act one are never entirely answered. I expected more to be made of Yank’s morbid fascination with Mildred and all she represents, but in the end she only exists as a catalyst for Yank’s own emotional journey, which is the true center of the play. In a society divided by wealth, it is difficult to know where you belong—Yank becomes ashamed of his role as a laborer, he abhors the upper class, and even working class activists view him as a joke. Where this journey of self discovery leads him is both surprising and inevitable, and makes a bold statement about the damaging effects of classism and poor working conditions.
The timing of this production of such a charged political piece is definitely apt. While many of the specific issues explored are long outdated, the larger themes still ring true and can be applied to other conflicts in modern society. The whole thing toes the line between nightmare and reality, and certain images will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
The Hairy Ape runs at the Odyssey through July 17th with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. There are select additional Wednesday and Thursday evening performances through June. Tickets range from $25-34 and can be purchased at www.OdysseyTheatre.com.