Since 2009, the Brass Tacks Ensemble has specialized in creative reinterpretations of works from the classic and modern stage repertoire. The troupe lives up to its name by paring away inessentials under the rubric “less is more.” One of the principles listed in their mission statement reads: “Theater is metaphor. The ‘bare bones’ approach frees the audience’s imagination.”
Brass Tacks’ production of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist masterpiece The Hairy Ape will open August 2 at Kerrytown Concert House, a space no larger than the tiny Greenwich Village theater where it was premiered ninety-six years ago. Hairy Ape is difficult to stage. The script makes for a gnarly read, largely because of O’Neill’s penchant for ethnic and regional dialect. Watching the all-female cast rehearse the play under the direction of Isaac Ellis, I admired their ability and willingness to take it on.
Yank is a gruff, burly alpha-male laborer who dominates a team of coal-slingers in the grimy stokehole of a steam-powered ocean liner. Mildred, the affluent daughter of the steel magnate who owns the ship, decides to visit the boiler room to glimpse her father’s underlings in action. Draped in a diaphanous white outfit, she comes face-to-face with Yank as he is violently cussing out an engineer. Appalled by his ferocity and appearance, she swoons after calling him a filthy beast. For all his tough-guy posturing, Yank’s feelings are clearly hurt. We see him wrestling with conflicting emotions: rage at the ruling class, gnawing self-doubt, and resentful fascination with the girl who his fellow workers say regarded him as a hairy ape on the loose: “She looked it at you if she didn’t say the word itself.”
His confusion takes on surreal dimensions when New York’s Fifth Avenue looms like a bourgeois purgatory where he is made to feel eerily powerless and marginalized. Jailed and later roughly ejected from a local I.W.W. office when he makes it known that he’d like to sabotage the entire steel industry with bombs, he ends up at the zoo, engaged in heart-to-heart dialogue with a composite gorilla, formed by the skillfully entwined bodies of the other actors. Observing Angela Dill rehearse Yank’s monkey-house monologue, I was moved to tears by the outcast’s desperate desire to find space or company where he can feel like he belongs.
America is experiencing a bit of a Hairy Ape revival, and this artful critique of class hierarchy seems to resonate strongly with the public. Yet Ellis says the Brass Tacks credo values universality over “speaking to the times.” When the company staged Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, for example, the run coincided with the presidential election of 2016 and its immediate aftermath. “We didn’t plan it that way and did nothing to alter the show. The audiences picked up on what they wanted to.”