Spotlighters Theatre's new production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape is a courageous, risky project. An early expressionist play by O'Neill (1922), the piece is full of long, dark, brooding monologues that can easily produce acedia in the audience. One is far from the complex inter-familial dialogue found in his later, more popular works like Long Day's Journey Into Night. The play's closing scene, where the protagonist befriends and is then killed by an ape at the zoo, has every potential to turn into farce if not carefully handled.
Directed by Sherrione Brown, this production of the play is a triumph. She has not only directed this play; with the assistance of Rebecca Clendaniel and Nancy Flores, she has choreographed it. Standout scenes are the end of act one, where a defiant Yank in a jumble of bodies swears vengeance against an upper-class woman, a terrific scene of snobbish wealthy churchgoers parading down Fifth Avenue, and the climactic scene where Yank confronts the ape in the zoo cage. (Brown wisely takes a minimalist approach to the scene. The actor playing the gorilla remains in shadow, wears a dark full-body stocking, and uses dark make-up on his face. His gestures and grunts are restrained, brief, and periodic. The ending is heartbreaking without a trace of the comic.)
At the center of the production is the mesmerizing performance of Michael Leicht as Yank. A physically domineering fireman who spends his day shoveling coal in the furnace room of an ocean liner, Yank deteriorates into "the hairy ape" as his anger explodes. In the first scene he affirms his worth as a manual laborer who makes the ship run in an otherwise bleak universe marked by alcoholism, brutal crew members, and exploitative bosses. He mocks the efforts of Paddy (Thom Eric Sinn) and Long (Phil Gallagher) to find some broader meaning for their lives in nostalgia and Marxist politics respectively. The consolations of religion are also bitterly pushed aside. He explodes into vengeful anger when a wealthy woman, daughter of a steel magnate (Karen Starliper), calls him "a filthy beast" when she spots him cursing and disheveled in the furnace room. His fellow crew members turn the sobriquet into the taunting "hairy ape." His subsequent efforts to express his rage by joining Manhattan socialites and labor activists only land him chained in the cage of jail. Bereft of any place in human society, Yank desperately recognizes his solidarity with the hairy ape at the zoo, who promptly kills him. Leicht brings out the muscular strength, naive pride, and cascading anger in the character but he also brings out the pathos. The fall of Yank here is immensely moving even if the ambient nihilism remains terrifying.
Not to be missed.