Monday, April 10, 2017

The Hairy Ape: Alienation, Claustrophobia, Isolation

 Bobby Cannavale (centre) and the cast of The Hairy Ape, at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Eugene O’Neill began writing realist one-acts in the teens and became, in his late career, the greatest realist playwright in the history of American theatre. But in the twenties and thirties he was wildly experimental. His first forays into expressionism were full-length one-acts, The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922), that, coincidentally, are playing simultaneously in New York at the moment. I’ll be writing about the Irish Repertory Theatre revival of The Emperor Jones in a couple of weeks; The Hairy Ape is the talented English director Richard Jones’s reconstruction of the production he mounted at the Old Vic last season. The current cast, headed by Bobby Cannavale, is American, but Jones has brought his other London collaborators with him: set and costume designer Stewart Laing, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, composer and sound designer Sarah Angliss and choreographer Aletta Collins. But he’s reconfigured the show for the Park Avenue Armory, and the immensity of the space changes the meaning of the play – or rather develops, in the last section, a quite different set of images to embody that meaning. (I didn’t see Jones’ Hairy Ape in London, but I’m familiar with the Old Vic space: it’s substantial, but it doesn’t dwarf the actors.)

The play begins in the stokehole of a ship, where Yank (Cannavale) and his companions, grimy with coal dust, feed the engine. Many classic expressionist plays of this period, both European and American, protest the mechanization and dehumanization of twentieth-century life as well as the class disparity; The Hairy Ape is obvious in the way it addresses the second, but its take on the first is somewhat off the beaten path. Yank takes a macho pride in his physical prowess – in the fact that the grueling nature of his job energizes rather than debilitates him. He sees himself as a crucial element in the machine he feeds rather than a slave to it; his celebrates it rather than, like his co-worker Paddy (David Costabile, in an eloquent, poetic performance), lamenting the lost days of the nineteenth-century clipper ships, when sailors were linked to the sky and the stars rather than enclosed in a stinking, airless hole. Yank is happy with his lot until Mildred Douglas (Catherine Combs), daughter of a steel millionaire, on a tour of the stokehole, is so repulsed by him that she calls him a filthy beast and has to be removed, in a state of hysteria, by the ship’s steward. Her denial of Yank’s humanity makes him feel, for the first time, alienated from his role and sends him on a quest through Manhattan to find out where he belongs. He begins on Fifth Avenue, where his impulse is to take revenge against her class by attacking an aristocrat on the street. But he winds up spending the night in jail, after failing to have any effect on his target beyond arousing his anger for making him miss his bus. On a tip from the fellow in the next cell, Yank visits the International Workers of the World office, set on translating his fury against the upper class into terrorist action, but the Wobblies – the popular name from this epoch for the I.W.W. – assume he’s a spy and throw him out. He winds up at the zoo, where he tries, with predicable results, to find commonality with a gorilla in his cage.
Becky Ann Baker and Catherine Combs in The Hairy Ape. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

The Hairy Ape is a fascinating artifact from a mindset and a theatrical movement that flourished a century ago. (You can still see examples of expressionism, of course, like Martin Scorsese’s movies, but they haven’t been tied to a sociopolitical point of view since the days before the Second World War.) It’s revived only rarely; the last time it was done in New York was a not-too-successful staging by the Wooster Group in the mid-nineties with Willem Dafoe as Yank. The play has always been flawed – overstated, with set pieces, some overlong, that stand at different points along the spectrum of effective theatre. It’s not surprising that Jones has trouble pulling off the scene between Mildred and her aunt (Becky Ann Baker), her chaperone, with whom she shares a mutual loathing, and that the sequence with the masked, marionette-like aristocrats feels antiquated, though it starts strikingly, with a manikin swathed in fur in the latest outrĂ© style posed against an Henri-Rousseau-like exotic backdrop in a shop window. The problem with the first of these episodes is exacerbated by the casting of Combs, who neither possesses the right icy, untouchable hauteur for the role nor manages to find a style to play her. (Baker, on the other hand, a character actress who is typically up to the demands of whatever role she takes on, gives the aunt a curdled crispness.) In the case of the second, Jones and Collins might have come up with some more inventive staging ideas.

The furrier’s shop window is part of a motif of cages – the others, all painted yellow, are the stokehole, the jail cell, and ultimately the gorilla’s domicile – that occur along Yank’s journey, which is represented by a carousel that encircles the audience like a panorama. Even the I.W.W. office, crowded with bodies at odd angles – the combination of Laing’s design and Jones’ staging here seems to have been influenced by the work of populist painters like Thomas Hart Benton – is framed so it suggests a kind of cage, and visually it’s very arresting. (The main shortcoming of this episode is the performance of Henry Stram as the I.W.W. secretary.) The idea that Yank leaves one cage and ends up in a series of others, eventually dying in one at the hands of the simian creature he’s just set free, gives rise naturally to a claustrophobic iconography. But Jones is working in the Park Avenue Armory, and understandably wants to take advantage of its evocative hugeness. So when the play shifts from the ship to Fifth Avenue, we see the dilapidated wall of the building way beyond the carousel, reminding us of the poverty that Fifth Avenue conceals. Long (Chris Bannow), the Cockney leftist from the stokers’ crew who accompanies Yank into the city, runs along an elevated balcony rail at the back like a figure in a comedy from the silent era, and when Yank languishes in jail, Jones uses that level again to show us, swathed in shadows, a guard swinging a flashlight. Before Yank reaches the gorilla’s cage, he walks past workers in hard hats with big yellow toolboxes they upend to use as benches, dotting the area beyond the carousel, while a trio of drunken revelers in party hats dance to twenties music that eventually runs down like a record on an old Victrola. Above this collision of classes is the moon, represented by a balloon with a man’s face on it. (It’s the man in the moon, obviously, but the significance of the human face eluded me.)

What Jones is going for here is a different sort of alienation from the kind O’Neill and the other Expressionists from this period were portraying. It’s Beckettian, and since that association takes us into a later theatrical era and a different theatrical style, it’s a little jarring, and I’m not sure whether it works. But Jones is a magnificent image maker, and I loved looking at these stage pictures. In the more confined terms of the original text, the opening scenes in the stokehole and the climactic one in the gorilla’s cage are the highlights of the production. Cannavale, ideally cast, imbues Yank with a swagger and a dynamic, raucous athleticism, and he finds his way to the character’s desperate existential befuddlement. As the actor plays it, Yank’s fateful encounter with the gorilla (Phil Hill, moving with a mixture of menace and delicacy) is terrifying and affecting. These early expressionist works were usually station dramas – the term derives from the stations of the cross – in which the arc of the protagonist is a journey into hell. (See Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal and O’Neill’s own The Emperor Jones. Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine adds a twist at the end.) Cannavale’s fine performance illuminates that journey.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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