I remember a student I was once trying to get to read more saying “What’s the point, there are just too many books”. Perhaps I’m beginning to have the same reaction to digital theatre – there’s so much more of it out there than I had ever anticipated and although I think I can claim I’ve covered a fair amount of ground there is still plenty to get to grips with. True, in recent weeks the flow of new material has slowed considerably as everything quite rightly heads back to the realms of live performance, but this has given me a good opportunity to go back and investigate some of the longer standing examples of work which have been uploaded and that there has been little reason to take down again.
One of the key names of 20th century drama that I had yet to engage with was Eugene O’Neill and so it was that I turned to a production of his 1920s play The Hairy Ape. Generally badged a piece of expressionist theatre – sombre mood, visual distortions, intense emotions, the failure of society. I can’t say it’s my preferred theatrical genre but as O’Neill’s piece is a long one acter I thought I would take the plunge. Even though short, by the end I still felt weary and not in a particularly good way – this was partly due to the writing but mostly due to the production which comes from the Ensemble Theatre of Cleveland, Ohio. Scrolling back through their past production’s list suggests they have made something of a specialism in covering off the works of this particular playwright.
The central figure in the play is appropriately named Yank. He is a fireman which, in this instance, means a stoker on an ocean liner. The atmosphere he works in is dark and intensely hot and is regularly compared to being in hell. And it’s a very noisy hell as he and his colleagues shout above the noise of the engines which in this recorded version means that much of the dialogue gets lost. It’s a febrile atmosphere full of macho posturing, ugly philosophy and physical violence. Today we would recognise it as toxic masculinity though there was no such expression in the lexicography back then. Into this atmosphere steps Mildred Douglas, the pampered daughter of an industrialist who is curious about the men’s working conditions but horrified and repulsed when she actually sees them. Branding Yank “a filthy beast” in front of everyone (no doubt today she would put it on Twitter) induces a crisis in him which has him questioning his own identity. Gradually he finds that he has no affinity with anyone in the outside world and is spurned equally by all. His mental deterioration reaches rock bottom when he wanders into a zoo and encounters a real hairy ape.
It’s all meant to be very profound and possibly could be, but not in this production directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz. At bottom there are some very questionable casting decisions. Joe Milan brings a bull like quality to the main role but its all very one note angry with no sense of light and shade (or is that the writing?). Although there’s some simian influenced agitated pacing which goes someway to bringing the role to life, it is rather repetitious and derivative (for a masterclass in movement in this vein watch the Arcola’s Great Apes). Brittany Ganser brings little to the part of the industrialist’s daughter. Although the role as written isn’t very well developed it’s a crucial one and I just couldn’t believe in it at all. I also failed to engage with the excruciatingly poor Irish accent of Alan Branstein as fellow worker Paddy and the part needed to be played by someone of more advanced years and gravitas. I had nothing but sympathy for Santino Montanez who had the rather thankless task of playing the gorilla in the zoo who provides the denouement in a frankly silly rubber mask. The rest of the cast work hard but there’s mostly very little for them to do other than make a lot of noise and as the sound quality isn’t all that wonderful, it meant there was a great deal of distortion; I’d certainly advise the use of headphones – alas there are no subtitles. The video is somewhat crudely shot with limited camera angles but perhaps it was only ever meant as an archive record in which case this is excusable.
Did I enjoy this production? I can’t say I did. Did I appreciate it? Not really. I’m just relieved that it didn’t take up the time of much of O’Neill’s oeuvre; his most famous works can run for hours. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is most aptly named!
The Hairy Ape is available on Vimeo – click here
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