Sunday, November 12, 2023

"The Hairy Ape" by Combustible Company at Center for Performing Arts

Combustible Company's newest show not only feels like it was written today, it feels like a devised work created by the company. But The Hairy Ape was written over a hundred years ago. They've taken Eugene O'Neill's story of a blue collar worker who suffers an existential crisis and turned it into a reflection on today's world, how some people feel forgotten by our leader and politicians, and become susceptible to political rhetoric. It's quite disturbing in the end, the kind of theater that holds up a mirror and makes you uncomfortable. But it's beautifully told with movement, stylized performances, and images. It's playing for seven performances only at Center for Performing Arts.

The titular character is a man known as Yank (Nick Miller) who works in the bowels of a ship. At the beginning of the play he's confident in his work, and certain this he's an important in building the foundation upon which society is built. But an encounter with a rich young woman, the daughter of the ship's owner, makes him doubt everything. He then goes on a journey first of revenge, then of trying to find where he belongs, finally ending up at a zoo to come face to face to an actual hairy ape.

Nick Miller as Yank, "the hairy ape"
(photo courtesy of Combustible Company)
Combustible's Artistic Director Kym Longhi directs the piece and gets wonderful performances out of the ensemble (also including Alice Wenzlow, Renee Howard Hatton, Erik Hoover, Anna Pladson, Kaleb Baker, Michael DiPrima, and Nick Lickens), several of whom are recent graduates. They're already on stage when the house opens ten minutes before showtime, either frozen in place, or slowly moving around the space. They move together as one, performing the routine movements of the workers, and also portray individual characters with a sort of heighted surreal style. It's very effective and fascinating to watch.

In the black box space of CFPA, several yellow metal scaffoldings are moved around and manipulated to form the ship's lower decks, upper decks, a prison, and other locations. They're matched by projections that make us feel like we're in the dark ship's belly, with other projections depicting other locations as Yank journeys around the city. Stark lighting effects, like headlamps, also help tell the story and define the location. The workers are dressed in identical dark pants and gray tank tops, with colorful '20s era costumes for the other characters, and exaggerated make-up. During scene transitions we hear audio from modern day pundits and politicians that relate directly to the happenings of the play, in a quite disturbing way. (Video design by Jim Peitzman, lighting design by Paul Epton, sound design by Micah Kopecky.)

the ensemble (photo courtesy of Combustible Company)
The Hairy Ape is not the kind of show you go to for a fun time, to escape the world for a few hours. It's the kind of show you go to to see a reflection of our world, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And maybe understand it and its people a little better, maybe be motivated to help change it. Combustible Company's work is always imaginative, creative, and unique, and here they've created something disturbingly relevant. See The Hairy Ape through November 18 only.