THE HAIRY APEA Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life
By Eugene O’Neill
Adapted by Joey Folsom
The Classics Theatre Project
Director: Joey Folsom
Assistant Director: Rhonda Rose
Production Design: Joey Folsom, Luisa Torres, Rhonda Rose
Scenic Painting: John Finger
Production Manager: Luisa Torres
Music Consultant: Benjamin Brown
Show Graphic: Devon Rose
Musician: Braden Socia
Robert “Yank” Smith – Joey Folsom
Yank played normally by Drew Maggs
Mildred Douglas - Devon Rose
Aunt Douglas - Janae Hatchett
Paddy - Jackie Kemp
Jon Garrard - Long
Jordan Pokladnick – Multiple characters
Lloyd Harvey - Multiple characters
Louis Shopen - Multiple characters
Steven Prince - Multiple characters
Reviewed Performance: 10/23/2021
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
That’s the plight of Yank, grizzly Irish fireman (coal shoveler) on a 1920s ocean liner. In a moment of vulnerability, while he has a strong certainty about who he is, life suddenly becomes a living hell as everything he knew is dashed.
The Hairy Ape, penned by prolific American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, extended the author’s personal search for his own beliefs and explored an upheaval in the political division of the classes in the twenties. Some plays by O’Neill are listed as best American plays. They all explore the clash of the classes in various stories. They are certainly classical, as their themes are timeless.
Joey Folsom adapted this story for The Classics Theatre Project (TCTP), adding original music and a new presentation of monologues. He directed it for this production at The Core in Richardson, and, on this night, due to an illness, the Director became the lead character.
The Hairy Ape is a play in eight scenes, on the ship and in New York City. The production team chose a common stage structure for all scenes. A set of raw pipe scaffolding on the perimeter created a playing area. This was easily understandable for ship scenes but took a bit of interpretation for the New York scenes. But it did allow for rapid scene changes. It also provided actors a way to climb and hang and act on many levels. Lighting created dark, dank scenes of blues and reds for inside-ship scenes and white lights for outside scenes, with few specials for spotlight moments. Sound effects came both from the booth and a near-constant drum accompaniment by Braden Socia on a small platform outside the scaffolding. Socia played guitar on several new songs.
O’Neill placed this story into an impressionistic style, so accuracy was not the design goal. Rather, the story calls for a design that barely represents a locale’s essence, and TCTP did a respectable job co-opting the pipe structure to every scene. This allowed the company to focus on acting and story, rather than set pieces. The introduction to New York City was met with a hidden mural on the back wall created by John Finger. This was a piece of impressionist cityscape that placed a piece of beauty on-stage. The sudden color lifted the whole atmosphere of a previously bland look and easily identified the city scenes.
One of the things Director Folsom adapted for this production was music. While O’Neill’s play had “songs” within the text, they weren’t musical, more like rowdy workers singing to spur their work. Folsom added the work of Braden Socia and Petra Milano to put some meat on the musical context, both with running musical sound effects by Socia and songs to replace dry monologue. I couldn’t tell if they were new text ideas or just musical ways to reduce long monologues, but they were integrated into the text so well it was hard to tell where monologue and music overlapped.
Costumes were also impressionistic. The firemen wore dirty, rough-hewn jeans and tee shirts. Shoveling coal in a boiler room creates beastly dirt and this supported the theme of those guys being ape-like. This working-class costume idea carried over to prisoners and even apes at the zoo. A minor costume element, like a face mask, was all it took to suggest different characters and most actors played multiple unnamed characters. The upper-class ladies were different. Mildred Douglas in her all-white, mid-calf dress, represented an innocent purity. Her Aunt Douglas dressed in a green lavish dress with a fur shoulder cape, representing the gaudy upper class. A subtle dig at the animal theme as well? TCTP enhanced the story and suggested themes with costume.
Mildred Douglas (Devon Rose) is a product of the ultra-rich but has a conscience that’s curious about the lower-class lifestyles. While she looks and acts like quintessential richness, there’s an innocence that allows her to see beyond her elevated station in life. At least she wants to. Her elevated language and reference to her wealth betrays what’s essentially true about her. Aunt Douglas (Janae Hatchett) has no issues with being filthy rich, even if it’s earned on the backs of the laborers. For both actors, they played their text closely, while imagining that wealth lifestyle. There was conflict between these characters, and we saw their differences in how they never looked at each other in dialog. They also nursed several long pauses in conversation, representing the vacuous emptiness of anything important to the upper class. Rose and Hatchett allowed these pauses to make the audience uncomfortable.
Paddy (Jackie Kemp) is the old, grizzled sailor who advises and mentors Yank, with little success. He sees a bigger picture of their plight than the others. While Yank is an idol to the men, Paddy is wise and worth hearing. His monologue about sailing in the old schooner days is the most engaging speech of the play. He paints a picture of those days and Kemp leaned into this story completely, allowing his imagination to play out Paddy’s wistful memories. We could feel Paddy’s longing, reliving them if only for a moment. Kemp also sang some new songs and, with a particularly good voice, turned dry monologues into living story. They were a respite from the stream of O’Neill’s words.
Jon Garrard, as Long, is a younger advisor to Yank, but he tries to move him to the dark side, essentially Marxist in those days. He lives on the angry side of the class struggle and wants Yank to join the fight. Yank doesn’t understand Long’s erudite words, but Long persists and Garrard keeps this energy flowing through every encounter, though with escalating exasperation, as Long realizes Yank is a lost cause.
Yank was played by Director Joey Folsom, a last-minute adaptation to the realities of live theater. Folsom stepped into the role, not knowing text by memory, but surely knowing the blocking and tenor of the role. Directors enter a production with a view to the story they want to tell. While Folsom carried the printed text for reference, after we began to feel the story unfold, we focused on Folsom’s character work. We heard the story rather than seeing a struggling actor. Folsom, known well for his Lenny Bruce, is an accomplished actor, but we saw an extraordinary acceptance for this challenge with great energy. While the text-in-hand may have slightly limited his acting mobility, he made up for this by committing to the character and allowing Yank to take this journey with all the highs and lows of a life in stress. It was a reliable performance.
The Hairy Ape is a classical, and classic, story. This company focuses on classical plays, so it fits with the mission. Beyond that, why this play now? The playbill doesn’t indicate a theme for TCTP, but we can guess at some.
These themes persist across time. The world is again in a time of great class division. The gulf between upper- and lower-class lifestyle is greater than it’s ever been. We’re seeing this gulf separate and fragment whole sections of society and now, as in O’Neill’s time, the haves are actively trying to squash the have-nots. This story reflects our time.
Kudos to TCTP for bringing this rarely seen play to life. Director Folsom and TCTP have created a theater experience we don’t often see. It’s hard to watch for some, because of O’Neill’s writing style. He wrote for the twenties and thirties, but we live in an era of soundbites and 30-second videos. This play will not appeal to everyone. But devout theater lovers will love dipping their toes into this classical era and seeing a Nobel laureate’s work come to life. I suggest you see The Hairy Ape.
The Classics Theatre Project
The Core Theater
518 W. Arapaho Road
Richardson, TX 75080
Plays through November 6th.
Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 pm
For information and tickets, visit https://www.theclassicstheatreproject.com or call (214) 930-5338.