Upstream Theater consistently brings unique shows to St. Louis. Sometimes they're new and foreign to these shores, and sometimes they're neglected classics. In the case of Eugene O'Neil's The Hairy Ape, it's the latter, providing us with the opportunity to view a rarely seen play that carries a powerful message of disenfranchisement. The play is buoyed by wonderful performances and exceptional atmospherics. And, it's one of those pieces that stays with you long after the lights dim and the patrons go their separate ways.
“Yank” stokes the coal on a large ship along with three other men. He can't seem to find his place in the world, preferring to think of himself of as the part of the engine that drives the boat, and society. When the rich ship owner's daughter visits the stoke hold, she's appalled by the behavior of these hard working souls and calls”Yank” a filthy beast before beating a hasty retreat. It's a comment that sticks in his craw, making him want to get even with what he sees as an injustice. But, just like the apes in the zoo, he's a man trapped in a cage of his own, whether real or perceived as such. He cannot seem to fit in, even with a group of union organizers who reject his brutish nature. It all leads to a rather allegorical finish that's perfectly in keeping with the themes that have been explored.
Christopher Harris does exceptional work as “Yank” the soul American among a group of Irish workers who stoke the coals of the mighty ship he works on. He doesn't even fit in with them, and a constant motif that pops up is his “apelike” appearance. His fellow cast members pull double, triple and sometimes quadruple duty as various characters. Maggie Conroy is the spoiled daughter of the ship's owner who cast aspersions at the men in the stoke hold, when she's not bickering with her aunt, who's played with aplomb by Michelle Burdette Elmore (both also play citizens of the big city and union members). Tim Schall, John Bratkowski and William Grivna are also quite good as fellow shipmates, union men, and prisoners who bicker with Yank in their various guises. Patrick Siler also contributes nicely as and Engineer and Policeman, who takes exception to “Yank's” behavior in the city and tosses him in jail (a cage of another kind). Siler also adds the sound design that deftly conjures up the inner workings of the ship, and which sets the mood for each scene.
Philip Boehm's direction is up to his usual fine standards, and he draws strong performances from his cast while cleverly making use of the single set. His use of masks for the citizens that “Yank” encounters is a memorably surreal touch. Jason Coale's scenic design is wonderfullyy grungy, and it's moodily lit (and backlit) by Steve Carmichael. Jennifer “JC” Krajicek creates believable costumes for each of the characters.
Upstream Theater's production of The Hairy Ape is a finely honed masterpiece and it continues through October 21, 2012.