Informed by his own personal experience in 1937, George Orwell saw, up close, the Communistic, or totalitarian outgrowth, of Socialism’s promise. After surviving a sniper shot to the throat by a government-usurping Communist faction, the legendary author learned that some things might just be too good to be true. Sadly, it only takes a few bad apples to undermine the collectivism of a people at large, freed from the thrall of a ruling class (Socialism), to a scenario when an anointed group of individuals are making decisions for the rest in the name of “fairness” (Communism). In the early 20th Century, and perhaps for all time, no country has epitomized this more than Russia – transformed by events leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution — when the dreams of equality were summarily replaced with Joseph Stalin’s authoritarian plan for the masses.
In effect, Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” published in 1945, echoes the Russian conundrum of that era, using the allegory of animals who collectively break free from human enslavement. However, class stratification ultimately divides them, corrupting their egalitarian message, as the wealthy (pigs) eventually rule over the poor (all other animals). Needless to say, despite Orwell’s Russian reference point, many of these themes still resonate today.
It goes without saying that it’s much easier to impart “Animal Farm’s” deeper political concepts via the actual 100-plus-page novel than it is via a two-hour play. Nonetheless, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum has terrifically met the challenge, staging an insightful production adapted by Peter Hall, with music by Richard Peaslee, and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. Artfully directed by Ellen Geer, and running intermittently through October 1st, the production of “Animal Farm” incisively tells the story of how greed and manipulation wins out – and essentially how a despotic pig (Napoleon) uses the shroud of practicality to gain greater support over his pig-peer-turned-competitor called Snowball, a well-intentioned idealist. Using the trust of his followers as a carrot, Napoleon deceives his very own, gradually leading them to their unwitting doom.
In a play such as this, proper presentation of sound and visuals — to enable the suspension of disbelief to cogitate on sociopolitical insights spoken by talking/singing animals — is a delicate task. Suffice it to say, the success of this part play, part musical is attributable to not only the musical direction of Marshall McDaniel and the various musicians – including a violinist, guitarist, and a drummer – but the realistic animal costumes and animal-like movements of the actors. More than just incorporating pig snouts and fitting the actors with prop animal heads, costumer Vicki Conrad and animal specialist Lexi Pearl have assisted in the seamless flow of the show, insofar that there is a complete investment in the narrative.
Of course, no matter how talented the behind-the-scenes personnel are, the actors must do their part to deliver — and they certainly do in this production. Beginning with the “storybook” narrators (Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott), who guide the exposition with an appropriate amount of inflection and emotion in their words, to ensemble performers like Cameron Rose, who shines as a rooster, there are no weak links in “Animal Farm.”
For instance, veteran performer Thad Geer shows his range of admirable ability — first as the wearied but glowingly intense Old Major, who rallies his fellow animals to mobilize in opposition to the exploitative schemes of mankind, and then as the understatedly mischievous local farmer, Mr. Pilkington. Lea Madda, too, impressively juggles two roles – as both Mollie, the charmingly narcissistic horse with ribbons in her hair, and as Mr. Whymper, the amoral businessman.
In addition, Katherine Griffith and Rodrick Jean-Charles give poignant and heartbreaking performances as the venerable mare and donkey, respectively. Their characters are more discerning and less naïve than their counterparts, but just as helpless to the lies of totalitarianism that engulf them. In contrast, Max Lawrence’s Boxer remains lamentably unliberated from the illusion cast upon him and his brethren. It is a mournful sight, and Lawrence is remarkable as the downtrodden horse who doesn’t know any better than to work harder and be beguiled by a dictatorial authority.
This tyranny comes about because of an erosion of a creed that started out in good faith. The initial push against the oppressive Mr. Jones (played with convincing command by Steve Fisher) to establish “Animalism” and its seven commandments — founded on the premise that four legs are bad and two legs are good — is an understandable development, albeit an oversimplification of the problem. Leading this charge is the justice-seeking Snowball, portrayed by Christopher Yarrow, whose biggest downfall is that he discounts the root of selfishness and how it can ruin and destroy a collaborative vision. Yarrow intensely gets across his character’s passion for doing the right thing; but as in politics, it’s not about what is right, but what is expedient.
With his arms, or hocks, folded in front of him, Mark Lewis compellingly epitomizes this expedience in Napoleon, the conniving pig, who spins falsehoods out of objective truths, and vice versa, even going so far as to retroactively change the past to suit the present (e.g., he alters the most important commandment of “All Animals Are Equal” to “All Animals Are Equal But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others”). Wickedness is embraced by Napoleon, who adopts the worst traits of the human beings he was so previously adamant about staying away from, becoming indistinguishable from them.
Not unlike all despots, Napoleon is flanked by adherents to hammer home his edicts – and none are louder or more influential than Squealer, who is played by the very talented Melora Marshall. Similar to a nightmarish mother who repeatedly scolds her children, Marshall is a stellar antagonist, screaming with an exacting fingernails-on-a-chalkboard shrill. As Squealer, she devilishly appeals to the animals’ self-interest in order to justify her maleficence, as in when she excoriates them for not learning their ABCs fast enough.
Unfortunately, when lies become pervasive, they are no longer identifiable from the sanctuary of truth. Consequently, cynicism sets in before apathy takes over, making drones out of living beings, who become subjugated without a single sigh. This Ellen Geer-directed play conveys the very-much-needed-to-be-said tragedy of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” poignantly reminding us of a potential future that must be avoided.
For more information about “Animal Farm,” and other shows in repertory at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, please visit theatricum.com