Review: The Hairy Ape at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

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The cast of The Hairy Ape. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Through the ages, a class system has plagued societies and have created haves and have nots. Unfortunately, this is still true today and it’s interesting that a play written in the early part of the 20th century can still hit us in the gut and make us face these problems and questions to which no one seems to have answers. Spotlighters Theatre latest offering, The Hairy Ape by Eugine O’Neill, Directed by Sherrione Brown, touches on these questions and problems and presents them to us quite successfully.

Whether by necessity or choice, Set Design by Sherrionne Brown is simple with set pieces and Scenic Art (with the help of Alan Zemler) and the intimate stage is sparse, but effective to the piece. To help this design, Lighting Design by Al Ramer is flawless. With cleverly insinuated settings, the Lighting Design adds value, especially with the isolation style lighting, highlighting a single actor, and shadow effects effectively representing jail cells and animal cages.

Also adding an authenticity to the production is Sound Design by Sherrionne Brown, Stephy Miller, Alan Zemla, and Fred Brown. From the sounds of the bowels of a luxury steam-liner to the sounds of the jungle, the Sound Design is well thought-out and absolutely adds value to the production as a whole.

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The cast of The Hairy Ape. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Adding that extra bit of authenticity is Costume Design by a few folks, including Sherrionne Brown, House of Bankerd, Fuzz Roark, Phelix Blais-Evers, and members of the cast. The Hairy Ape could be considered a period piece, but the costumes transcend time and are accurate for the 1920s but also fit in completely today. The distinction between the classes is very apparent and an interesting, over-the-top, colorful pallet is used to represent the rich and though, odd at first, makes complete sense and drives the point home. Kudos to all the a successful design.

Overall, the technical aspect of this production is impeccable and takes this piece to the next level.

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The stokers. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Sherrionne Brown wears a bunch of hats for this production but most importantly, she takes the helm of this piece as its Director and she has knocked it out of the ballpark. She has a complete grasp of this story and text and her comprehension of it is apparent. She keeps the actors moving about stage and the transitions are quick and concise making for great pacing. She should be applauded her assembling of such an able and committed cast, as well. This play has a message to send and Brown does it beautifully having a hand in all aspects of this production.

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Thom Eric Sinn as Paddy. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, as stated, this ensemble is strong and works well together. Taking on various, diverse roles Rebecca Clendaniel, John Covaleskie, Daniel Douek, Melanie Eifert, Bob Michel, and Jacob Urtes carry this piece along very nicely transitioning from one character to the next effortlessly and with purpose. Playing Stokers, Rich People, Prisoners, and a plethora of other roles, this small but apt troupe brings these characters to life and move the piece along nicely. Truly being an ensemble piece, every actor on the stage holds his or her own making for a brilliant, overall performance of this intense, moving piece.

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Julie Press. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking on the role of Mildred, a rich daughter of a steel tycoon who seemingly wants to understand those less fortunate than her, but only ends up insulting them (whether directly or indirectly), and realizes she might be over her head once she is actually faced with “the other side,” is played by Karen Sarliper who does an admirable job in the role but gives a performance that falls a little flat. She portrays the character’s class well, but seems scripted at times, losing some of the poise required of a girl of the upper class. However, she seems comfortable in the role and is confident in her scenes.

Thom Eric Sinn takes on the role of Paddy, an old-timer who is still breaking his back stoking coal in the underbelly of a cruise ship, and he does quite well in this role. Aside from his weak Irish accent (I believe it was supposed to be Irish), he seems to understand his character and portrays him well. His poignant monologues of how things used to be and how things are believably performed and, overall, he gives a strong performance.

A couple of highlights in this production are Julie Press who plays Aunt, the hesitant, old-school, snooty but absolutely poised chaperon to her niece, Mildred, and Phil Gallagher, who takes on the role of Long, a more progressive activist-type character who seems to have his finger on the pulse of the political climate of the time. Press gives 100% to this character giving an authentic and meaningful performance. Though more of a supporting role, Press takes this role and makes it her own making for an impressive portrayal. Along the same lines, Gallagher really delves into his character and gives a realistic portrayal. His dedication to the character is clear and he has a strong, confident stage presence.

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Michael Leicht and Karen Starliper. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

The standout in this production is Michael Leicht, who takes on the role of Yank, the rough and gruff New York born stoker who wants to find a place to belong in this world. Leicht seems as though he was born to play this part. His intensity, focus, and commitment to this character allows Leicht to embody him completely. From the start, it’s hard to separate the actor from the character. He commands the stage and is confident in his purpose for this character. His grasp of this character’s trials and tribulations is absolutely apparent and his physicality is on point. He exudes the yearning to belong in Yank and his delivery of the text is natural and poignant. Overall, he gives a phenomenal performance that is certainly the one to watch.

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Michael Leicht. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Final thought…The Hairy Ape is an intense, poignant piece of theater that touches on class distinctions, nature vs. nurture, and trying to find out where we belong in the world. Written in the 1920s, this story is still relevant today as we all are trying to find where we fit in and break the glass ceiling of class structures. This production is well put-together with a strong, dedicated ensemble that is not afraid to get in the faces of the audience. The performances are moving and authentic and pull the audience in from the start. With great technical aspects such as lights and sound to help tell the story, this is definitely not a production you want to miss this season.

This is what I thought of SpotlightersTheatre’s production of The Hairy Ape… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

 The Hairy Ape will run through November 19 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

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