Sunday, November 19, 2017

O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” opens Ensemble’s 28th season

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Eugene O’Neill are considered to be the major writers in the mid-20th century modern drama movement.   They used concepts of the emerging field of psychology to illuminate problems of individuals and the society in which they found themselves.

O’Neill, who wrote more than 50 plays, was the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He also was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

Scripts such as “Beyond the Horizon,” “Anna Christie,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Desire Under the Elms,” “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are now considered to be classics of the modern theater movement.

The latter is an autobiographical play which, though written in the early 1940s, was not produced until 1957, 25 years after his death because O’Neill stipulated that condition.  It is considered his masterpiece.

Ensemble Theatre is opening its 28th season, entitled “We the People,” with O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.”  The script fits into the theatre’s selection of plays that “celebrates the diversity and dynamics of the population that makes up this ‘great nation’ while also speaking to the challenges we still face in 2017!”

“The Hairy Ape,” is not one of O’Neill’s classics.  At its opening, and since, the audience, and especially the critics, were perplexed with its expressionistic form.  The use of “excessive monologues, the slowness of certain scenes, and the depressing monotony of the situation,” along with its general tone of brutishness, do not bode for emotional involvement.

It is, in fact, more a closet drama, one which lends itself to reading and discussing, rather than a full staging.  Little happens that requires visual observation of movement.  It lends itself to academic intellectual discussion, more than actor-audience connection.

The overt expression of existentialistic thought, mainly highlighted by the protagonist’s final speech in which he bemoans, “Where do I fit in?” is also off-setting to many. 

The play centers on Yank, the ruler of the steam room on a large ocean liner.  He and his coal-shoveling crew are responsible for the ship’s movement.  He considers himself to be the principal cause for the motion of the vessel, more so than even the captain. Yank is a “coal” guy not one who approves of wind or other forms of energy.  (Sound familiar in this age of energy/global warning disagreements.)

He perceives society as being controlled by the rich, but he fights to control his part of that world.  One day, when a wealthy debutante takes a tour of the boiler room, is repulsed by him, and calls him a “filthy beast,” a hairy ape, he goes through a crisis of identity. 

When he leaves the ship and wanders into Manhattan, he finds himself at odds with the people he sees, even the labor organizers on the waterfront.  He becomes more and more animalistic, living up to his reputation as “a hairy ape.”   He becomes absurd, the very definition of the hero of an existentialistic play.

O’Neil probes the meaning of masculinity, the primitive nature of humans, social repression of the working class by the wealthy, toxic industrial environments, superficiality of the rich, and religious and racial degeneration.

The long one act, 1 hour and 25 minutes without an intermission, is not captivating theatre.  There is little actual action.  Instead long monologues and contrived movement take place.

Director Ian Wolfgang Hinz does what he can to induce attention.  He succeeded in most instances.  He uses the set well and adds lighting to add visual texture.  But, in the end, he can only do so much with the script.

The cast puts out full effort, but often presents “affect” rather than achieving effect.  Many speeches are flat in tone.  There is little texturing of characterizations.  Yelling and forced action often are present.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble is to be praised for continuing to present classic theater to its audience.  Whether “The Hairy Ape” was the best of the O’Neill play to select is questionable.  For anyone who likes to be exposed to works by noted writers, and those who like to probe into the intellectual nature of the arts, the play may be of interest.

“The Hairy Ape” runs Thursdays through Sundays through December 10, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

To see the views of other Cleveland area theater reviewers go to:

Next up at Ensemble: “The Little Prince,” from December 1-17, a play for the whole family, followed by Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part One:  Millennium Approaches” from January 5-28, 2018.