Director Monty Cole has masterfully adapted Eugene O’Neill’s play for modern day contemplation. Set in 1922, O’Neill penned a tale about the identity crisis of an Irish laborer shunned by a socialite. Cole cleverly changes the focus from classism to racism by casting 6 black men as the ensemble. The play stays true to O’Neill’s intent. Although it still portrays the struggle of a proud but poverty-stricken man, this time Yank isn’t Irish. He is black.
This show is a sensory explosion. Before we see them, we hear the talented ensemble (Julian Parker, Rashaad Hall, Michael Turrentine, Breon Arzell, Tony Santiago, Bradford Stevens) hoofing it offstage. The rhythmic thuds are primal. It builds this thrilling tension. The guys arrive onstage in a single file and quickly spread out. Under Step Master Arzell, they perform an impressive dance of physicality. In perfect synchronization, their feet and hand movements create this audio-visual. They are laborers stoking the fire in an ocean liner. The work is hard and repetitive and loud. The dance is too.
The Oracle is fairly small. And these guys fill the space. I’m sitting in the front row and consciously keep my feet tucked under my seat. I’m afraid of tripping a dancer. Later, I’m afraid of being clobbered during a fight. In the intimate setting along with the vigorous stepping, I can smell the sweat. At some points, I swear I can smell the coal too.
Cole really captures the visceral nature of the male species. When Parker compares his strength to the boat’s engine, his pride is apparent. He heatedly pontificates with an ‘I am the man’ rant. His body is his. He owns it. And he is ready to go after anyone who questions his strong command. He sounds very much like a gangsta rapper. In these moments, Parker clearly connected me to present day issues. Parker has pumped himself up into a testosterone charged frenzy. He’s not asking for respect. He is demanding it. He won’t be denied accolades for his work. Initially, a resigned Stevens pokes Parker with a stick. Later, it’s Santiago who sends Parker into an existentialistic tailspin. Santiago doubles as a spoiled socialite. He and Turpentine amazingly transform from rugged laborers to ladies that lunch. Their bickering is sophisticated savagery. Santiago, in particular, is just an icy bitch.
Scenic Designer Eleanor Kahn’s metal pole framework serves as a no-frills cage. The guys are all over these industrial monkey bars. They effortlessly pull themselves up onto it and dangle off it. Kahn, not only aids in smooth scene transitions, her design serves to reinforce ‘The Hairy Ape’ premise. Parker wanders through Manhattan and ends up an actual zoo. In a final scene, Parker confronts the silent ensemble wearing eery ape masks (Mask Designer DeChantel H. Kosmatka).
THE HAIRY APE is a powerhouse adaptation. Cole dusts off O’Neill’s play and gives it a contemporary spin. The thought-provoking results are relevant to today. Black lives matter! Whether it’s the Irish in the past, African Americans in the present or a new group of immigrants in the future, economic inequality needs to be addressed. By understanding the plight and pride of the poor, we can work toward resolution.
And as with all Oracle productions, this show is FREE. The mission of this public access theatre is to bring theatrical experiences to the masses without charging for it. There is an opportunity to make a donation onsite or online to help Oracle to continue to operate as an Award-winning free theatre.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
At Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Monty Cole
Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays at 8pm
Sundays at 7pm
Thru March 12th
Reserve tickets at http://publicaccesstheatre.org/
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.