KPBS AIRDATE: July 28, 1993
“The Hairy Ape” is an unsettling hymn for the disillusioned, disenfranchised, disaffected masses of society. It’s about pride and power, class and consciousness, pain and violence. Written in 1922, it’s one of Eugene O’Neill’s earlier efforts. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t often done.
But it’s been tackled anew by 26 year-old director Matthew Wilder, at the La Jolla Playhouse. He and his cast grab hold of it like a horde of hungry pitbulls, and the result is brutal and brilliant.
At the center is Yank, a crude stoker in the boiler room of a transatlantic liner. He’s top dog, macho and mean, but frequently given to “tinkin.'” He tinks he knows where he belongs: in the bowels of the ship, part of the engines, “runnin’ de whole woiks.”
But several levels up, on the top deck, languishes Mildred, whose father owns the steel company. In a social welfare, do-gooder moment, she asks to see how the other half lives, and she’s escorted down to the boiler room, white dress, white gloves and all.
Yank is holding forth, cursing and swearing and sweating. Mildred is repulsed and horrified by the beast, and she faints. It’s a turning point in Yank’s life. He vows to get even, and begins his inexorable journey, a futile attempt to climb the evolutionary ladder. He meets with rejection from every quarter, from Fifth Avenue to a Wobblie Union Hall, ultimately taking the short step from a jail-cell to a zoo-cage.
The play is loaded with angst-ridden, existential questions. “Where do I get off at?” Yank keeps saying. “Where do I fit in?” It doesn’t read well, what with the dialect and the primitive philosophical rantings. But it is revivified in Wilder’s hands. He is true to its expressionistic origins, full of revolutionary fervor, terror, fury, agony, distortion and dissonance. The external world, as per the playwright’s suggestions, is merely sketched in, not fully realized. In fact, the stage directions are simplistically read in a child’s voice.
The cast and design crew conspire to support the stark, steel vision. The set, costumes, lighting and sound are of one savage, volcanic piece. It’s jarring, nightmarish at times. But thrilling. And at the center of it all is Mario Arrambide, who makes Yank a believable, even a sympathetic hulk. He is blacks and Bosnians, immigrants and homeless people, the great unwashed — desperate, frenzied, lost. He is riveting and miraculous in the role. As calm counterpart to his fury, Jan Triska is a powerful, poetic Paddy. Oddly, he has an Eastern European accent instead of a brogue, but his words whip and flutter like the sails of the old boats he lyrically describes.
The rest of the cast of nine is muscular, both anatomically and theatrically. The production is a triumph for all concerned. Not least of all, for the La Jolla Playhouse, which continues to honor its commitment to fresh ideas and young artists, who, it is hoped, will bring new audiences and breathe new life into what’s been called “the fabulous invalid,” the theater.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.