‘THE HAIRY APE’ by Role Players Ensemble Theatre

About a year ago, PlayGround teamed up with the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, took us on a tour of Tao House (where O’Neill wrote his most famous plays), and asked us to write 10-minute plays inspired by The Hairy Ape.

That was the first time I’d read the play, and once I fought my way through the dialect (“It slams dat offen de face of de oith”), I found it a mildly interesting, dated and repetitive play about a guy who says the word “belong” about ninety-five times.

Then I wrote my play based on the scenes in the stokehole, forcing me to dig further into the play. I soon revised my opinion: it was a play with cool scenes that take place in a stokehole, plus some other scenes that were a bit repetitive. But at least now I kind of got why the guy said “belong” so many times.

On Friday, my friend Eric Hayes (who’s on the board of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation and is now the new artistic director of Role Players Ensemble Theatre in Danville) invited me to check out his version of the play, which he directed as part of the 11th Annual Eugene O’Neill Festival.

It was a revelation.

The production took O’Neill’s ideas about Expressionism even further than what’s in the script. Using wonderful sound and lighting, plus inspired masks (the Wobblies in masks that looked a bit like bugs) and silhouettes to create an expressionistic crowd scene, every moment of Yank’s journey through the play suddenly made a hell of a lot of sense to me.

Oh, and about the dude who played Yank. Over beers after the show, Eric said that he recruited his lead by saying not only was he born for the part, but it was his Hamlet. (There’s a glowing review by Susan Steinberg here that makes that exact point.)

I hadn’t looked at the program, so I asked just where he found that amazing actor. Turns out it was James Hiser — a guy I’ve hung out with at a couple of BBQ’s, had long conversations with, and who so completely embodied the role of Yank that I never even recognized him.

I love when a great production of a classic play makes me realize just why the thing is a classic in the first place.

(Disclosure: I was comped to this show.)

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4 Replies to “‘THE HAIRY APE’ by Role Players Ensemble Theatre”

  1. I’m glad you were able to see a production that got you a little further into the play.

    I’ve always love this particular O’Neill. The expressionism of the script suggests an outsized world of contrasts and give someone staging it a real chance to warp it into something amazing, beautiful, and if done right, frightening. (For me the repetition plays into that.)

    I read it out loud to myself recently and was both elated and depressed afterwards.

    Elated for some of the reasons above.

    Depressed because it made me feel quite far from ever being able to words to suggest and bring up as much as O’Neill does.

  2. You would have loved this production. It was part of a “birth of expressionism” festival, so Eric did just what you said: focused on making everything outsized and amazing. Very visual and almost cinematic, but serving the point of the play.

    I’ve always had a hard time reading any kind of dialect or misspellings that are supposed to convey an accent. My brain gets tripped up and I lose the rhythm of the sentence. I even have trouble with modern-day versions: I read “Get off the fuckin couch” as “Get off the wait, what, is that a typo, oh, the character drops his g’s, okay, so he’s saying get off the fucking couch” and I’m out of the play. So I had a really tough time with all the “dems” and “dese” and “woilds.”

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