Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” was a trippy, experimental play when it was first staged in 1922, and director Trevor Belt has now appropriated the public-domain material and made it even trippier and more experimental in an impressive production at the KC Fringe Festival.
“The Hairy Ape” was and is an angry play preaching uncomplicated politics — industrialists keep the wheels of commerce turning by using workers as disposable tools. Human beings in such a system are little more than cogs in a machine, O’Neill tells us. The central character in the piece, a stoker in an ocean liner named Yank, is slow to realize that this is, in fact, the way of the world. Initially he sees himself and the industrial steel that surrounds him as one and the same. He, the coal stoker, is the force of nature that makes the ship go. Or so he believes.
His attitude changes when Mildred, the daughter of the line’s owner, manipulates the ship’s officers into escorting her to the hold where she can see Yank and his fellow workers — covered in sweat and coal dust — hard at work. Although Mildred thinks she wants to help the poor, she’s appalled by Yank’s bestial appearance and flees back to the upper deck.
Yank, it seems, is just another version of raw material. This dim awareness leads him to a chapter of the International Workers of the World, where he essentially volunteers to be a terrorist and blow up the steel factory owned by Mildred’s father. But he finds so satisfaction with the I.W.W., whose representatives believe Yank is too brutish for their purposes. Yank is forced to accept what he is — a permanent outcast.
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Belt has whittled the play down to a running time of about 60 minutes and has pieced together a visceral, non-realistic production anchored by Scott Cox in an extraordinary performance as Yank. Cox’s intense, physical presence is riveting, and it never wavers during a show that moves with the momentum of an avalanche. There’s a sort of chorus — multiple characters played by Adam Henry, Derek Trautwein and Bob Wearing, who sometimes appropriate masks and incorporate puppetry. Matt Leonard contributes to a percussive score at a drum kit off to one side. And actress Clare Nowak, who delivers a shrewdly conceived satirical performance as Mildred, also helps set shifting moods at the electronic keyboards.
“The Hairy Ape” is one of those plays with a well-known title that rarely gets produced. I had never seen it on stage before, and I’m glad this production was my first. It’s powerful stuff.
The final performance of “The Hairy Ape” will be at 11 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. For a complete Fringe schedule, go to KCFringe.org.