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Prisoner of the System

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The Hairy Ape

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

By Justin Hayford

The third scene of Eugene O'Neill's 1922 play The Hairy Ape opens in the stokehold of an unnamed ocean liner sailing the Atlantic. O'Neill, rarely one for subtlety, explains in his stage directions that the dozen or so actors crammed into these tight quarters should shovel coal with the "inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas" while a "teeth-gritting" tumult "stuns one's ears." It's the kind of scene most theater companies in Chicago salivate over: sweaty guys yelling and screaming in yet another attempt to convince themselves that the effectiveness of their acting increases in direct proportion to their testosterone level.

Director Kirsten Kelly has other ideas in her production of O'Neill's play for Mary-Arrchie Theatre. In fact, she has so many ideas--too often lacking in similar big, burly productions--that the 11 men she shepherds through O'Neill's masterful semisocialist parable of malignant modernism rarely need to thump their chests or cup their genitalia. Understanding that the early O'Neill was more expressionist than realist, she has her actors shovel coal with a kind of unstudied grace. They become dancers by default, seemingly unaware of their own choreographic precision, fulfilling O'Neill's direction that the mayhem have a "mechanical regulated recurrence, a tempo."

Kelly's stylization doesn't sap the scene of its stark brutality--far from it. She even uses hunks of white Styrofoam to represent coal, one of many intelligent choices that underscore the high artifice of this gritty "comedy of ancient and modern life." The story focuses on a tough-talking, belligerently antisentimental coal shoveler known as Yank, a man who charges through life on instinct and adrenaline. He prides himself on being at the bottom of the social order, for his brawn drives the great ship forward--all else is "tripe." He declares himself the only one who "belongs," the prime mover of the modern era.

Yank's view of the social order is upset, however, when Mildred, a dissipated socialite and daughter of the ship's owner, tours the stokehold and declares Yank a "filthy beast," then collapses in a swoon. As though hoping to kill the self-knowledge instilled by her insult--that in fact he's exploited by the capitalist system he helps keep afloat--Yank vows vengeance on Mildred, tracking her to New York City. Here he walks among somnambulant society folk who come to life only at the sight of jewels or monkey fur; nothing he says or does can insult or even engage them. He might as well be a speck of dirt on a banker's spats. In the words of critic Mary Colum, he's become "that common character in American life, the disintegrated person." In O'Neill's eyes such disintegration is an inevitable by-product of modern capitalism, which values speed, novelty, and mechanization, and leaves the human soul to wither.

As social commentary The Hairy Ape is perhaps a bit simplistic; Robert Benchley exaggerated only a little when he wrote that O'Neill "gives us not one thing that is new and he gives us nothing to think about." To compound the problem, The Hairy Ape is about as repetitive as a play can be. But as Benchley concedes, O'Neill "does thrill the bejesus out of us"--and in this play precisely because he's not writing social commentary but myth. The ogre is industrialism, out to devour its own progeny, and Yank is its number-one son, though no enchanted forest offers any possibility of escape.

As Kelly and her committed cast understand, it's repetition that gives myth much of its force. From the play's opening moments, in which we hear nothing but the men's synchronized breathing, it's clear that great attention has been paid to the recurring linguistic and structural rhythms in O'Neill's work: Kelly allows images and motifs to recur like choruses in a great piece of music. This is that rare guys-being-guys play in which you can actually hear the text, in which the musicality and cadence of the lines are given as much emphasis as the visceral emotions behind them. Coupled with Kelly's choreographic staging, these dynamic rhythms give The Hairy Ape a sense of inevitable forward movement, aptly mirroring Yank's inevitable ruin. Yet Kelly's attention to artifice never obscures the real meat of O'Neill's fable: above all it's Yank's desperate and doomed plight that draws us in, especially given Ed Dzialo's forthright, unapologetic performance as capitalism's whipping boy.

Mary-Arrchie's Hairy Ape has its weaknesses. Certain ensemble stretches devolve into monotonous shouting, and the depiction of automatonlike New York society is unconvincing. The acting is strong but, with the exception of Cathleen Bentley as Mildred, never great. With all this production's rough edges and loose ends, however, it's precisely the kind of staging that makes Chicago such an exciting theater town. This Hairy Ape hasn't been packaged and sanitized; it's still emerging from a flurry of ideas, still struggling into completeness--and given our political economy and O'Neill's genius, struggling against formidable odds. This is a messy, rigorous, exhausting, exhilarating evening that probes human nature more deeply than most slick commercial productions ever could. Grappling with O'Neill, these artists may not be entirely victorious, but they do emerge ennobled.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Daniel Guidara.

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