Performing Arts: Theater
April 16, 2017
Speed, energy, steel, technology! That’s what Yank (a ferocious Bobby Canavale) believes is the future of America. Brutish and powerful, he hangs from the ceiling and claws his way up the steel sides of the ship’s hellish engine room in Eugene O’Neil’s harsh, 1922 drama “The Hairy Ape.”

Spectators sit on bold yellow risers peering at the men inside the fire-red engine room in the bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner shuttling wealthy people from continent to continent.

This chorus of tough men shovel coal in unison, then in contrapuntal strokes. Highly physical, the exhilaratingly directed play by Richard Jones delivers its greatest punch in the first 2/3 of the program.

A spectacular set rotates in and out of view, leaving the cavernous back of the Park Avenue Armory to indicate the vastness of the depths of anxiety felt by people chained to unrelenting repetitive tasks that exploded during the industrial revolution. This is a time when laborers begin to organize into unions to get a fair share of the goods, while the “haves” stay blind to the signs of a social revolution.

Swinging from metal bar to metal bar, Yank is enraptured by his brute strength, beats his chest and goads the men to feed the ravenous machine. When they break for water, the men gather in the yellow stoker’s hull physicalizing the rolling sea and telling tales. The elderly, but just as acrobatic, Paddy (David Costabile) reminisces about the lighter days when balletic sailboats traversed the sea.

While the “downstairs” workers sweat and swear the “upstairs” folks stroll elegantly along the deck in cream colored outfits, with well coiffed hair tucked under gracious hats by set and costume designer Steward Laing. Bored by the long trip, Mildred (Catherine Combs) informs her aunt (Becky Ann Taylor) that she wants to go “downstairs” and see the other people. Against the idea, the rich and spoiled steel-magnate’s daughter Mildred gets her way and descends to the underworld.

Upon seeing the insistently all male Yank -- grimy, sweat glistening and holding up his shovel—she screams in horror, calls him a beast and faints. This reaction confuses Yank. Until now, he’s been an outsized personality, wild and unable to be tamed, until the debutante spies the animal in human form. No woman he’s known ever called him a “beast” – at least not to his face, and if they did, it was a compliment not a horror-stricken, sickening wail.

This encounter precipitates Yanks quest for his position in the world, the one where people are educated, well dressed and part of a civil society. Once they dock, Yank struts through the NYC of yore. Entering a panoramic view of the clashing societies, the underground laborers smash against the above ground elite.

Choreographer Aletta Collins brings the Fifth Avenue “swells” to life by creating a Busby Berkley style dance that suggests a great masse of single-minded people, spines erect moving in sync and wearing white masks and a uniform of identical black dresses or suits and hats.

Escaping from the hoi polio, Yank jams into the local Union headquarters, an all white room that resembles a library rather than a raucous watering hole for laborers. These are policy wonks, they don’t really appear to understand brutal physical labor, because they are devising the theories and dues required to be part of their exclusive fellowship.

All too much for Yank, he runs to a zoo where he tries to join the gorilla in his cage because the new world was simply not open to him.

This production is reminiscent of the bold images, colors and propaganda proffered by the Russian Constructivists. Emergent just before the 1917 Russian Revolution, these populist artists were enraptured by the new technology, film—the creation of art for ‘social purposes.’

Probably one of the most remarkable visual productions this season, director Richard Jones in collaboration with Ms. Collins, Mr. Laing, as well as lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin masterfully imagine and execute a remarkable world built on false promises, corruption and uncatchable dreams.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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