Chicago Theater Review: THE HAIRY APE (Oracle)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 24, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Another incendiary offering from Oracle Productions, Monty Cole’s bold take on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape is pugilistic and powerful. In his athletic tour-de-force, a vibrant sextet stomp, leap, clamber, dangle, and swing like the title from stage-wide scaffolding. For all its force and fury, this latest Ape never forfeits its total take on O’Neill’s protest play from 1922. Ever new, this brutal expressionistic drama incarnates America’s persecuted poor, specifically the modern worker as a freak whose wretched worth is to build our cities for unfair pay, then disappear. Here it’s performed–if that’s not too weak a word–on Eleanor Kahn’s daunting set, a combination of gymnastic apparatus, jungle gym, and scenic outlook.

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Cole’s casting concept departs majorly from previous productions: Unlike O’Neill’s original Irish subjects (well, objects really, including two actresses), the six-person Oracle ensemble is all-black and all-male. Poverty, gender and race combine—and the real issue, as O’Neill intended and as 2016’s inequalities confirm, is class conflict.

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O’Neill’s anti-hero Yank (magnificent Julian Parker) is doomed throughout. We first see him as a stoker on a transatlantic ocean liner, defensively proclaiming his place and decrying the weaklings who “don’t belong.” But when he hears stirring stories of sailing expeditions told by an old salt named Paddy (Bradford Stevens), Yank senses that a once noble calling has been brutalized and mechanized. Now singing the boiler blues, he hears anti-capitalistic, agitprop denunciations from socialistic Long (Rashaad Hall). Yank gets politicized and, of course, takes it personally. Finally, he meets the enemy he never knew: Slumming it in the “stoke hole,” pampered Mildred (Tony Santiago), heiress to a steel-trust fortune and daughter of the owner of the shipping line, encounters Yank and screams, “Filthy beast!” In an instant Yank loses his pride and identity.

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Craving to find her to prove he’s human, Yank rages against her insult. He stalks Fifth Avenue, where he’s invisible or irrelevant to the tony Sunday congregations. Seeing the bling in the shop windows, he realizes the vast difference between his destitution and their largesse. He has no place here. But, ironically, he finds no stake when he visits the offices of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.). The “Wobblies,” fearing he’s a spy and a plant, reject his crack-brained scheme to blow up the steel plant owned by Mildred’s millionaire dad. The only steel Yank will see are the bars of a jail–and finally of the ape cage in the city zoo. Here the play’s title becomes literal and lethal. For a creature who boasted of his speed and power, Yank has met his simian match and more. Now he belongs.

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The anger that O’Neill built into this one-act almost a century ago detonates again over 80 kinetic minutes. Parker’s force-of-nature Yank is both the prototypical caricature of the proletariat beast that plutocrats dread (like avenging Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime) and a displaced person or runaway refugee in the supposed land of opportunity. If Yank’s fate/doom is also his race, well, in the U.S. that comes with the territory. Oracle’s endurance-feat rouser, which features a kick-ass cast of Olympian stamina, is as relevant as a Bernie Sanders speech or Donald Trump attacking life’s “losers.” You know that the bombastic blowhard means Yank.

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joe-mazza-brave-lux-oracle-hairy-ape-web-09photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux
poster design by Evelyn DeHais

The Hairy Ape
Public Access Theatre
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway
Fri, Sat and Mon at 8; Sun at 7
ends on March 12, 2016
for FREE tickets, visit Public Access

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit Theatre in Chicago

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