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'Hairy Ape' is a technical adventure

Leave it to Torn Space to play Eugene O’Neill as avant-garde.

Some of Dan Shanahan’s rhythmic direction of “The Hairy Ape,” the 1922 expressionist play about capitalism and class warfare, to be fair, comes from O’Neill. The play is written to a painting director’s delight, but O’Neill’s bare exposition gives our imaginations much to chew on without feeling lost. This is one of the more accessible dreamscapes Torn Space has taken us to, and it does it without alienating its exploratory whims.

It would be too easy a compliment to say that the technical team is largely to thank for this. They are, indeed, a star of this and most every other Torn Space production. Kristina Siegel’s metal skeletons and projection-friendly panels make ambidextrous canvases for Brian Milbrand’s video and sound design. While Milbrand’s video work looks, too often, as if curated from a library of stock industrial footage – ribbed textures, rotating parts, raging flames – his “live surround sound” and Justin Rowland’s sound design is powerfully alive. It’s not often sound gets its creative due, and this makes the best argument for it I’ve seen – heard – in ages. Patty Rihn’s lighting emotes characters’ contrasting lushness and alienation against this metallic set.

It’s a technical adventure, to be certain; this is Torn Space, after all. But it’s also O’Neill, the dramatist who brought us “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Iceman Cometh.” Performance breathes organic life into this artifice, and beautifully.

Patrick Moltane, our excitable, enraged, revolutionary Yank, fights flames in the bowels of a luxury liner while fanning political flames in his monologue. Down here, Yank is below nearly everyone else, below rank, below sea level, but not below being heard. His physicality and rage are projected onto him as though an ape, enraged so much at the world’s insinuation of his gruff and grime. It is a characterization he ultimately embodies; whether or not in reality or in its sinking sense of self.

Moltane is as powerful as ever. It feels as if this role is the culmination of his best skills – simmering intensity matched with literary wit, physical masculinity grounded by soaring romanticism. It’s a powerhouse of a performance, the one plays like this were written to showcase; many leading men have stepped into this existential ape suit on stage and screen. Moltane builds his performance starting at a ground zero that’s already high and above our threshold of comfort. Even without Milbrand and Rowland’s raucous soundscape, this space is loud.

Christopher Guilmet, as fellowman Long, and a number of other small parts, holds his own alongside Milbrand. By the end of the second act, Guilmet shows us his muscles, which even a part like Yank can’t help but to upstage. Guilmet pairs well with Moltane, though, even if their characters never buddy up the way you think they will. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they aren’t, but you’ll feel the brotherhood that Yank’s agenda desperately needs.

This is the message at the root of this production’s accessibility, which Yank makes abundantly clear in all his rage, and which the world around him – both in the barrel of a ship and on the streets of New York – can’t seem to hear: that if you are not ruling your own destiny, you’re feeding someone else’s.

That glass may be too full for Yank’s or O’Neill’s taste. This is as much a commentary about our reactions to our systems as it is about our place in them. But despite all the disparity, there is the Torn Space machinery at work, in a functional but scrappy art house, here on the fractured East Side, reflected in the other half’s empty mirror of our once-again growing city, comfortably ignorant of its invisible lower decks, shouting from its metal bones the words that Yank would want us to hear: Be visible. Don’t submit. Rise up.

Doesn’t seem so foreign a concept.

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