Annie Bulleit & Zach Stone in The Hairy Ape. Photo: Martin French
The Lottery by Brainerd Duffield
Based on the story by Shirley Jackson
Directed by Kristen Fortwengler
The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Bailey Storey
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
A mysterious new initiative called Bootstraps has mounted an evening of two plays directed by nascent directors. The two selections don’t necessarily have anything in common beyond their service to this cause, and the idea that both directors see these plays from another time as somehow relevant to this moment.
Kristen Fortwengler’s choice of the adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, is an obvious commentary of the drive to push back progress in the name of tradition, however great the price. The story of a small community’s annual drawing to guarantee prosperity through sacrifice has been read and discussed in thousands of classrooms ever since its publication in 1948. In the aftermath of World War II, it might have seemed a cautionary tale far from reality. In 2022 it cannot help but seem much closer to journalism.
Fortwengler set herself a challenge in navigating the movement of twelve cast members in such an intimate space, but her blocking is surprisingly clean and uncluttered. Along with a novice director, there were a few new faces on the stage. A small unit of children accomplished their limited duties authentically, and among the adults, if they were at times overearnest in their attitude, they were always focused, clear, and direct in their delivery.
The relaxed, more understated professionalism of Sean Childress betrays the seasoned veteran on hand, Mimi Housewright delivered a bright and detailed characterization of a social matriarch (in a DEEPLY patriarchal narrative), and Carol Jacqueline charted the delicate anguish and tragedy that lies at the heart of the piece.
The Lottery’s parable of blind obedience is unquestionably resonant in Trump’s America, but it also cannot help but feel heavyhanded now.
The Hairy Ape is not a title that jumps into your mind when someone brings up Eugene O’Neill, and its classification as an expressionist play has distanced it from popular culture. It doesn’t get produced very often and comes from the earlier period of his career when he was focused on the sea and seafaring characters. Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day’s Journey Into Night comes much later.
The extended opening scene of men working in the “stokehold” of a passenger cruiser crossing the Atlantic is a bold exercise in heightened emotionalism and pacing. If it has ended there it wouldn’t have been a bad night, but it is but a prelude to the fall of one animalistic man, the most dynamic and egocentric of the lot, Yank (Zach Stone). Yank frightens a privileged upper-class girl who insists on a tour below decks (Annie Bulliet) and spends the rest of the action registering just how incompatible he is with conventional society.
The ensemble is filled with vivid performances full of vigor as if each of them couldn’t get enough of O’Neill’s rich but concise dialogue. Ape is most certainly a play that actors can dine out on, and the playing is without question a little ripe, most particularly among the stokehold crew, but it arguably suits the style of the piece and the ferocious attack on the text led by Zach Stone’s bravura, no-holds-barred work here is forceful and unforgettable.
But Sean Chdilress is terrific as the old salt of the crew, a man who can stand up to Yank’s aggression because he’s grown past caring, and Annie Bulliet executes two contrasting roles, first as the ethereal but dillettante Miranda Johnson and then later as a savvy Industrial Workers of the World/ I.W.W. union representative who sees through Yank’s self-destructive obsesion with ease.
As a director, Bailey Storey has confidently shaped the production with decisiveness and bold choreography of action. There is a particularly impactful scene of Yank and 3 of his cohorts shoveling coal into the boiler that is a heated yet visceral physical exchange. Storey has a particular vision for the play that illustrates the bold, impetuousness of a young theatre artist crossed with the discipline of a more seasoned hand, If his The Hairy Ape at times sacrifices nuance for action it is still an exciting take on a play that unabashadly examines the fundamental nature of the human animal.
The staging includes 6 echairs space open to audience members, 4 of which were occupied on opening night. I longed for the actors to address their impassioned performances directly to those individual audience members but they mostly did not, a curious note of caution in a production that otherwise works so hard to take risks.
It can be argued that all local theatre provides growth opportunities for actors, and Derby City Playwrights attends the development of playwrights, so the effort to “train” young directors would seem to satisfy an obvious need. Kudos to Martin French and partners for this mentorship.
The Lottery & The Hairy Ape
December 1 -3 @ 7:30 pm
December 4 @ 5:00 pm
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.