A circus of subversion

First off, I have to admit that walking into The Manny Fried Playhouse, I wasn’t familiar with The Hairy Ape or even much of storied American playwright Eugene O’Neil’s work (and somehow I got a gig as a theatre writer guess it helps to also be the site’s editor).   That said, I don’t think a familiarity with this play was needed to get the most out of this Subversive Theatre production running as part of Buffalo’s Infringement Festival.

Any play where an actor hands me a bag of peanuts upon entering has already got my attention and this one kept it, just as I got to keep the bag of peanuts and munch on them in the theatre.   The show started as a circus, complete with puppets, someone in an ape outfit, rubber baloons and acrobats.   While this wasn’t part of the original play (except for one brief but poignant scene at the fairgrounds), but it served as the background and in some cases foreground of this version.

Multicoloured plumes of smoke (photo by Kurt Schneiderman, Subversive Theatre Collective)

The circus performers tell the story of The Hairy Ape by taking various roles including the elite, workers, the machines on a ship and in two standout bits of comedic Brechtian deconstructionism, a smoke stack emitting multicoloured plumes of smoke and a deck chair.   The Ringmaster (Brian Zybala) serves as narrator and interacts with the audience on more than one occasion, even bringing up the sweaty summer conditions inside the Manny Fried Playhouse.

It was a very appropriate subversion of a script that deals with the exploitative circus that is capitalism.   The story follows Yank (Patrick Cameron) as he goes from a worker confident of his dominance over the equipment in the ship’s smokehole where he works to one doubting his and his class’ role in society after upper class heiress Mildred (Candice Kogut) takes a trip to the ship’s lower levels for fun and treats him as a mere beast.   Yank tries to get retribution and almost achieves class consciousness but fails to reach solidarity from other workers, which leads him to his ultimate encounter with a caged ape.

Different classes (photo by Kurt Schneiderman, Subversive Theatre Collective)

As he did in Subversive’s 2007 infringement offering The Exception and The Rule, director Kurt Schneiderman added live music to the show in the form of a Found Sound Orchestra comprised of Patrick Cain and Gabriel Guitterez.   Together, they help to emphasize certain points in the realist story and contribute to the overall surreal circus atmosphere.

This show had me from the start and kept me to the end.   While I may not have been that familiar with this play to begin with, thanks to this subversion, I’m probably more familiar with it than I would have been by starting with the text.

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