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Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape"

It’s as if O’Neill had a fever dream of our present times as we too, fear we are little more than hairy apes.

The Hairy Ape

City: Chicago
Playwright: Eugene O'Neill
Venue: Goodman Theatre
Run: 7 - 21 February 2009

The Hairy Ape runs 7 - 21 February at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, as part of the series “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century”.

“Ain’t no respect for the working man no more. We just can’t get a break”, exclaimed Patsi Parisi, Tony Soprano’s bag man after suffering a humiliating hard-core economic lesson and financial defeat at the hands of a $12 an-hour Princeton-educated Jamba Juice manager. The dye was cast long ago, and the workin’ man has slipped and slid to extinction from the first day of the Industrial Revolution, increasing the ranks of those doomed to include the white collars, the upper middle-class, the nuveau-riché – newly minted hairy apes pushed into the corporate underworld with every announced layoff.

Chicago’s off-Loop ensemble The Hypocrites presents Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at The Goodman with a distinct interpretation relevant and reflective of the cataclysmic events borne from the poisonous global embrace of a “trickle-down” economy.

Chris Sullivan delivers a turbulent and gut-wrenching performance as Yank, the shoveler of coal into the furnace of a luxury ocean liner, mindlessly performing his function, physically taunting and threatening his co-workers who dare over-think their place in this world. Those include the intellectual Long (Robert McLean nails the baby communist), quotes the his rights from bible to bill to declaration, safe in the comfort of possessing those rights because he’s of better station in class and education than his co-workers, human rights be damned in the grand scheme. Yank threatens the older co-worker Paddy with death by being thrown overboard -- his name as anagram for “patsy” -- simply because Paddy has gotten older, cannot produce at “twenty five-knots” as Yank does, and insists upon singing workers’ lullabies and thinking of what to make of the rest of his life as the world he’s known becomes more alien to him with every shovel of coal into the furnace.

Yank posits himself on the top of the furnace vent, skin proudly darkened by coal dust, at first glance an inspirational reminder of Rodin’s The Thinker. As his co-workers challenge him to spill his thoughts and share in drink, Yank lashes out – they’ve disturbed the serenity of non-thinking. The antithesis of Paddy and Long, Yank bears no concern for the problems of the world and claims no problems as his own – he merely waits to shovel at 25-knots and warm up the passengers of world-class wealth.

Along comes Mildred (Jennifer Coombs) and Aunt (Stacy Stoltz) to the upper deck. The daughter of an industrialist who “owns half the steel in all’ the world”, Mildred twists the ship’s Captain into arranging a tour of Yank & Company’s workplace. She will visit unsullied by the protective shield of hip boots and flack jacket, insisting on seeing the men in their natural habitat and sniffing her ownership of “fifty more dresses just like the one (she’s) wearing”. She’s dressed like Kate Winslet but she’s kindred spirit to Billy Zane. Announcing to the Purser that she’s cold, the stage is set for her to “study” the men at full throttle, working the boilers to assure comfort to passengers.

Mildred arrives in the ship’s depths to find the men in workers’ frenzy, with Yank at full blast of scream and spit, blasting his co-workers, ignorant of Mildred’s presence until a psychic moment makes him realize that his environment is breached. Yank stops his frenzy to find Mildred – devastating in beauty and devastating Yank emotionally by communicating her contempt and terror at his behavior. As he reaches to offer her comfort and steadiness, she humiliates him and strips him of the shards of humanity – “you hairy ape”.

As he has accepted every label placed upon his humanity, he humbly accepts Mildred’s. Like King Kong, he hangs on to his missing mate via the doll she leaves behind, a spell of voodoo he succumbs to, Yank needing to find Mildred, desperate to let her see that human beneath the ape.

Long, witnessing Yank’s humiliation at Mildred’s hands, proselytizes the proletariat’s revolution, insisting on a Fifth Avenue field trip that Yank “make an example” of Mildred. Workers of the world unite. Unionize. The only salvation for the workin’ man. Long’s words fall on death ears, Yank’s eyes are bigger than his stomach as he breathes in the offerings of Mildred’s world; he’s abandoned by Long, chased off by cops and placed in a jail cell. Yank has no purchase in Mildred’s world, a world that moves much faster than 25-knots. Onboard, he was “young, in the pink, movin’”. Hours, days, weeks in lock-up, Yank’s words to Paddy – “you no longer belong…I’m livin’” – are now the dirt upon his coffin.

Yank is let out of jail and his wandering continues. He believes he has found class camaraderie and violent kinship in the Industrial Workers of the World, a trade union dedicated to organizing the workin’ man – as long as the workin’ man eats the pie, drinks the kool-aid and keeps his ideas to himself. The IWW wants to sit down and negotiate with the bourgeois at The Table and Yanks just wants to blow The Table up. The relationship ends quick and bad, like-minds and polar opposites make for the weaker being tossed out of the proverbial bed.

The world gets smaller for Yank until there is no world left for him at all. “It takes a man to work in Hell”, Yank would roar as he shoveled at 25-knots. The ship, boiler and shovel where he left them, but he can never return, he no longer belongs there, or anywhere. The gauntlet is thrown at his feet when a youngster makes an appearance to condemn his broken spirit with a boot to the shin and a “go to hell” as his next employment opportunity.

With Sean Graney’s flawless direction, Chris Sullivan shows us the ghosts of discarded workers past, present and future, which makes the present-day news updates more desperate and disconcerting. Keeping with the O’Neill tradition of Realism, there is no happy ending or “leaning experience” for Yank. As if O’Neill had a fever dream of our present times, the audience absorbs the distinct probability that the industrial complex with its three-card monté bailout grabs and ultra-bonus payouts – we are now all hairy apes.

Tom Burch compliments a flawless presentation with a claustrophobic set design – it’s real, we want to jump off, swim away from Yank’s fate and our own, but we can’t. There’s no landing.

“I start something and the world moves. It can’t move without something else”, Yank crows to his co-workers in happier times. Words of irony in these stagnant times.

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