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Review: THE HAIRY APE

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

"Two boards and a passion": that, according to the old saying, is all you need to make theatre, and EgoPo Classic Theater proves this—literally—in their stunning production of The Hairy Ape.

Matteo Scammel, a human forcefield, provides much of that passion, in a very impressive, very visceral, very muscular performance as Yank, the central character in this early expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill. And this production, directed with great imagination by Brenda Geffers, offers a master class is expressionism onstage-- a highly stylized kind of theater where the character's feelings are made visible and audible. And Yank feelings range from arrogance to rage to desperation.

Act One takes place in the engine room of a luxury liner; the stokers shovel coal and drink and chant and goad each other. "Nix on de loud noise. Can't youse see I'm tryin' to t'ink?" And that's the real action of the play: watching a barely literate man trying to think about existence. Scammel strikes a Rodin-like pose; we can almost hear his mind churn as he declares, "I belong."

But, like many tragic O'Neill characters, Yank discovers he doesn't belong, that he has no home in the world. Unlike Long (Colleen Corcoran) who believes socialism, the workers of the world rising up in revolution is the solution, or Paddy (Steven Wright) who is nostalgic for the good old days when ships were ships and men were men, Yank discovers that the problem isn't political but existential.

The instrument of that discovery is a visit from a first class passenger, a rich young woman (Lee Minora) who wants to see the stokers and goes slumming in defiance of her chaperoning aunt (Amanda Schoonover). Yank and Mildred meet in a scene of sensationally charged sexuality. When he realizes she thinks of him as a "hairy ape," he vows revenge as a last ditch attempt to assert himself.  "I'll fix her."

Act Two takes place first on Fifth Avenue, where the rich and their merchandise are on display, and then at the zoo, where real hairy apes are on display.  The ensemble—including Langston Darby, Maria Konstantinidis, Chris Anthony and Carlo Campbell-- plays the stokers and the gorillas and the IWW members and everybody else.

The production's energy never flags: it starts high and stays high, driving home the play's idea.  "Thinkin' is hard."  You can say that again. And he does. If O'Neill's investigation into the tragic core of human life is more like an assault, the production balances that with the pleasures of its theatricality.

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EgoPo Classic Theater at The Latvian Society, 7th & Spring Garden Sts. Through April 26. Tickets $25-30. Information: 267-273-1414 or www.egopo.org

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