On Stage: Class wars get 'Hairy' in Upstream production
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2012 - Working-class anger exploding onto city streets is hardly a 21st-century recession phenomenon. In Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape,” directed by Philip Boehm of Upstream Theater, 1920s ship stoker Yank (Christopher Harris) thinks he’s mad at one particular millionaire’s daughter but it turns out he’s furious with the entire 1 percent.
Tough talk by four filthy men “roasting in their own sweat" and a drunken song about whiskey introduce us to life in the grim underbelly of an ocean liner.
Gritty but secure is the realm of Yank and his grimy gang. But after Mildred (Maggie Conroy), the white-clad, do-gooder daughter of the ship’s owner, descends into the bowels of the vessel and looks upon Yank as a “hairy ape.” Yank is shaken to the core: “She grinds de organ and I'm on de string, huh? I'll fix her! Let her come down again and I'll fling her in de furnace!”
A dozen or more other “hairy ape” references throughout the presentation are typical of O’Neill’s early plays in which his themes are clearly stated rather than implied. But the repetition in “Hairy Ape” also underscores Yank’s simplistic thinking. Yank’s emotions, however, run deep -- and ring true -- emblematic of O’Neill’s sympathy for the underclasses, an undertaking the hulking Harris pulls off nicely.
Providing a bit of unexpected comic relief (before quickly becoming eerie then violent) is Scene Five, in which Yank and Long (John Bratkowski) wander New York’s Fifth Avenue, disdainful of its dripping display of wealth.
Snooty rich folks cavort like Harlequin figures in a dream-like sequence. Mumbling through masks, the privileged strut and preen with exaggerated movements, oblivious to Yank’s angry attempts to be noticed.
Long explains to Yank that this field trip to the land of luxury is an attempt to show him that Mildred’s just one of many:
I wants to convince yer she was on'y a representative of 'er clarss. I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness. Then yer'll see it's 'er clarss yer've got to fight, not 'er alone. There's a 'ole mob of 'em like 'er, Gawd blind 'em!
Live percussion by Patrick Siler (who also plays the Engineer and the Policeman) adds a dramatic soundtrack, in one instance, marking time with machine-like precision to the men’s coal shoveling.
Also worth noting: "The Hairy Ape" gives veteran cabaret singer Tim Schall a chance to demonstrate his versatility, as a steely stoker, affected prisoner and suspicious union secretary.