Encore Michigan

Brass Tacks nails O’Neill’s ‘Hairy Ape’

Review August 04, 2018 Kym Reinstadler

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Staging playwright Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape for modern audiences is a bold choice.

The play is almost 100 years ago and seems dated with a brutish hulk of a main character whose job is to shovel coal below decks into the furnaces of a Trans-Atlantic ocean-liner.

And O’Neill wrote the play in a style known as expressionism, which is characterized by expansive speeches that help dramatize the sufferings and awakenings of the protagonist in a fashion that seems “over-the-top” today.

In The Hairy Ape, the conflict is a simultaneously a study of the clash between people of upper and lower socioeconomic classes created by the Industrial Age, and one man’s struggle to re-establish his identity and masculinity.

Modern audiences might struggle to find something that they can relate to in this strange play.

As if the degree of difficulty wasn’t already sky-high, Brass Tacks’ Director Isaac Ellis decided to cast this play – which has 14 male roles and two female roles – with five women.

Four of the women (Alison Alkire, Jennifer Joyce, Cydney Marie and Maegan Murphy) play multiple male roles, changing characters subtly with the addition of a single prop. Collectively this tight ensemble portrays a gorilla with great aplomb.

Angela M. Dill delivers big in the impassioned and physically demanding leading role of Yank Smith. Yank is an uneducated, unskilled laborer, yet early in the play he feels as powerful as steel because the ship wouldn’t move without his efforts.

But his self-esteem crumbles when the beautiful daughter of a steel baron, dressed in white linen, descends unannounced into the belly of the ship where Yank and his crew shovel coal to into a furnace to feed a blazing, smoke-belching fire.

The socialite is repulsed by the sweaty, soot-smeared, animalistic Yank, and pronounces him a “hairy ape.”

When Yank sees how the lovely Mildred sees him, his psyche unravels and he can’t find anywhere he feels he “belongs.”

The 90-minute show progresses without intermission through eight scenes. Sets are minimal There are just five black-and-white cubes and a few simple props – a cane, a coat, a hat, a sash. Strong, tight acting alone suggests the setting of a tavern in Europe, a passenger ship, and the streets of New York City.

Director Ellis said he read The Hairy Ape in a theater history class at Adrian College 20 years ago and something about Yank’s existential crisis stuck with him.

When he proposed including this show during Brass Tacks Ensemble’s 2018 season, he said he fully expected the other 11 members of the creative team would deny him for all the usual suspects. The play is old and little known, the dialect is difficult, and the themes – let’s face it – are difficult to enjoy.

But members agreed to do the play, scheduling it for Brass Tacks Ensemble’s one summer week at Kerrytown Concert Hall in Ann Arbor.

Ellis said an all-female cast wasn’t his goal or intention, but being open to gender-neutral casting was discussed early on, and only women auditioned.

Somehow, it worked. And was enthralling, to boot.

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Week of 8/15/2022

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