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Review: EgoPo rivets with 'The Hairy Ape'

Two boards and a passion. That, according to the old saying, is all you need to make theater, and EgoPo Classic Theater proves this - literally - in its stunning production of The Hairy Ape.

Matteo Scammell, who turns in a visceral performance as Yank, surrounded by the ensemble of the Hairy Ape. (DAVID SARRAFIAN)
Matteo Scammell, who turns in a visceral performance as Yank, surrounded by the ensemble of the Hairy Ape. (DAVID SARRAFIAN)Read more

Two boards and a passion. That, according to the old saying, is all you need to make theater, and EgoPo Classic Theater proves this - literally - in its stunning production of The Hairy Ape.

Matteo Scammell, a human force field, provides much of that passion, in a very impressive, very visceral, very muscular performance as Yank, the central character in this early (1922) expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill. And this production, directed with great imagination by Brenna Geffers, offers a master class is expressionism on stage - a highly stylized kind of theater in which the character's feelings are made visible and audible, feelings that in Yank's case 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. Scammell 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 fellow stokers Long (Colleen Corcoran), who believes the workers of the world rising up in revolution is the solution, or Paddy (Steven Wright), 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, rich young woman Mildred (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. Members of the ensemble - including Langston Darby, Maria Konstantinidis, Chris Anthony, and Carlo Campbell - play stokers and gorillas and 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.

THEATER REVIEW

The Hairy Ape

Presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at the Latvian Society, Seventh and Spring Garden Streets, through April 26.

Tickets: $25-$30.

Information: 267-273-1414 or www.egopo.org

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