Story: Yank and his cohorts spend their days and nights toiling in the boiler room of a steamship, stoking the fires with the coal they shovel into the gaping mouth of its churning engines. He is content with his lot until a chance encounter with the spoiled daughter of a steel magnate, who insists on visiting the ship’s engine room and is appalled by the look and behavior of Yank, from whom she recoils in disgust and terror.
Her abrupt manner leaves Yank questioning not only what he does but who he is, and how he fits into a society that benefits from his labors but allows him only to live within certain narrow parameters. His quest for illumination and subsequent repudiation by all levels of society leaves him as bewildered and confused as an animal out of its own natural element.
Highlights: Upstream Theater’s raison d’etre is “to move you, and move you to think.” Artistic director Philip Boehm frequently adapts works from around the globe, introducing them to St. Louis audiences and bringing a fresh perspective to their themes and ideas.
With the inaugural offering of its 2012-13 season, however, Upstream turns to a rarely performed work by one of America’s greatest dramatists, Eugene O’Neill, The Hairy Ape, which was first published in 1922. It’s one of O’Neill’s earlier efforts and slight in construction. Its expressionistic style, though, lends itself to the type of works often presented by Upstream. Director Boehm adds his own considerable artistic and creative flair to present a haunting and riveting rendition of this sad and troubling tale.
Other Info: As is the custom with Upstream, sound plays a pivotal role in this dramatization. Here, a pulsating drum is the featured element of Patrick Siler’s eerie sound design, a primitive pulse that embodies the soul and tortured psyche of the appropriately named Yank. That drumming personifies Yank’s existence, stable while he’s in control and then increasingly loud and intrusive like the external forces that beat him down, much like the capitalistic machine perceived by O’Neill to suffocate the American worker a century ago.
The show’s mood is further enhanced by the gritty and grimy costumes designed by Jennifer “JC” Krajicek that are worn by the firemen, except for the odd appearance of too clean shoes adorning three of the four workers. Their dirty countenances further enhance the effect of menial and dangerous labor upon their very selves.
Robert Van Dillen’s props are accentuated by some disturbing masks that populate the mean streets of New York City which offer no salvation for the out-of-sorts Yank in the second act. Steve Carmichael’s atmospheric lighting is at its best in the climactic scene but works well elsewhere, too, illuminating Jason Coale’s flavorful set, an amalgam of a nautically-themed screen with a solid deck that covers the engine room fires that glow in Carmichael’s lights.
The stylized acting affected by Boehm’s cast is rich in illusion and expression, capturing the loneliness, frustration and fear that the inarticulate Yank feels but cannot state. Christopher Harris is a powerful and swaggering Yank in the first act, lord of his domain and content ruling the fires he stokes. That singular meeting, though, with the spoiled heir flips Yank upside down, something Harris masterfully conveys in the character’s savage edginess and frustration from that point forward.
Boehm has assembled an expert supporting cast that shines in various portrayals. John Bratkowski, William Grivna and Tim Schall are magnificent as Yank’s congested comrades on the ship, with Grivna delightfully spinning a yarn as an alcoholic Irishman who drinks to escape his fate. Bratkowski cleans himself up in the second act as he escorts Yank through the streets of Gotham, while Schall doubles as the mean-spirited head of the International Workers of the World, a union that rebukes Yank as a likely spy because of his confusion.
Michelle Burdette Elmore and Maggie Ryan smartly convey a matronly woman and her flip, arrogant niece, respectively, as well as doubling as union folks, while Siler capably fills the roles of a doddering engineer and policeman.
The bill for Upstream’s production of The Hairy Ape proclaims it to be “a comedy of ancient and modern life.” Yank’s tragedy, however, representing that of the downtrodden masses in O’Neill’s view, is far darker stuff, indeed.
Play: The Hairy Ape
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand
Dates: October 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $20-$30; contact 863-4999 or email@example.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak