Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger from the novel by George Orwell
Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Synetic, a theater company which has won mighty accolades for the flowing theatricality of its movement-based productions, and which once won a Helen Hayes Award for its absolutely wordless performance of Hamlet has given itself the ultimate challenge. It has produced a play with words. Lots of words. Rivers and lakes of words; words used like bullets, and like construction tools.
Animal Farm is a novel about the use of words to overpower and stupefy, to induce docility and compliance, to manipulate and enslave. It cannot be wholly represented by music, gestures or movement. It must be done with words.
So how did Synetic do with the wordiest play it has ever done? It’s gorgeous. It’s wonderful. It’s absolutely swell. Director Paata Tsikurishvili has integrated actors new to Synetic’s astonishing techniques with Synetic veterans in an impressive, sizeable cast. Dave Bobb, as the Joe Stalin-like pig Napoleon, radiates the late dictator’s grisly charm and menace. Andrew Zox makes himself a comforting presence as the pig Squealer, a spin doctor and professional liar so good at his office that he makes Sunday sound like Monday. Peter Stray gives some nobility to lofty Snowball, the third pig. Ben Cunis and Courtney Pausoro play two naïve, willing horses and Eric Humphries is a donkey filled with vague foreboding; by the time their fate is clear to us, we care about them, and are moved.
This is first-class, traditional acting which supplements, rather than supplants, Synetic’s exotic, eye-opening techniques. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, who wracked up another Helen Hayes award earlier this month, gives us a movement plot which is simple by Synetic standards, but not easy. Humans must move like animals, and must do so quickly. The three hens (Marissa Molnar, Jessica Hansen, and Shannon Listol) do this spectacularly, and everyone does it well.
Not theatrical enough for you? Listen to this: a huge video screen, planted in the middle of the Rosslyn Spectrum stage, permits us to go beyond the barn to the farmyard and the entire world. We see in black and white, as through a security camera. The onstage action, some of it flowing in and out of the videoed world, meshes perfectly. (Credit videographers Alexey Khripunov, Hunter Herrick, Travis Steward and Daniel Berk for this good work.)
You probably read Orwell’s slender novella in high school. Here’s the part that gets through Tsikurishvili’s and Nathan Weinberger’s concise, well-targeted retelling: The animals on Manor Farm are oppressed, neglected and underfed by the drunken Farmer Jones (Irakli Kavsadze). Called to arms by the Old Major (Philip Hylton), the animals overthrow Jones and drive him off the farm. A trio of pigs (Zox, Stray and Bobb) assume management– after all, they can read – and promulgate principals which they claim came from Old Major: All animals are equal. No animal may sleep in a bed. No animal may drink alcohol. No animal may kill another animal.
Eric Humphries (as Benjamin), Courtney Pauroso (as Mollie), Ben Cunis ( as Boxer), and Hens Shannon Listol, Jessica Hanson, Marissa Molnar (Photo: Raymond Gniewek)
This workers’ paradise repulses an effort by Jones and two of his two-legged buddies (Larissa Leventals and Matthew Eisenberg) to retake the farm. Though they had little to do with the animal’s triumph, the pigs lord the credit, and enhance their power. They move into Farmer Jones’ house.(No animal may sleep in a bed with sheets.) After Napoleon resolves a dispute with Snowball through the help of some vicious dogs (Levantals and Kavsadze), he exercises his power without restraint, and the animals are brutalized in ways that Farmer Jones could never conceive. The hens are executed for refusing to surrender their eggs (no animal may kill another animal without cause).The remaining animals are worked beyond exhaustion. When a noble horse injures himself in heroic labor, the pigs promise to send him to a veterinary hospital. Instead, he is sold to a glue factory, so that the pigs can buy whiskey. (No animal may drink alcohol to excess.) Finally, the pigs and the humans conclude a trade negotiation with a night of boozy gluttony. The pigs have learned to be human, and the humans have learned to be pigs. (All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.)
The lessons of Orwell’s novel – that the cupidity of those who struggle for power feeds off the stupidity of those who give it to them – has survived Communism’s retirement to the ash heap of history. Tsikurishvili and Weinberger understand this, by and large, and except for an unfortunate decision to intersperse the farm’s invasion by Jones and his friends with clips from the German invasion of Russia, they work hard to underscore the universality of Animal Farm. It’s very funny in part – it is, after all, the human comedy that we’re talking about – but it’s impossible to miss the sobering point: the most dangerous tyranny is the one in which you believe.
(Running time: 1:30)
Animal Farm continues in the Rosslyn Spectrum Fridays through Sundays until May 20. All shows at 8 p.m.; additional Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 on Sundays and $35 otherwise. To obtain some, call 703.824.8060 or go to www.synetictheater.org.
On May 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19 Synetic also presents Andrew Zox’s My Way Little Girl after the evening show at no additional cost. The program describes this show as dealing with “medicine, its boundaries and its sexual taboos by mincing stereotypical iconic pop-symbols.” Announced running time is 30 minutes. This is the first in a new Synetic late night series, which Paata Tsikurishvili called their ‘experimental theater.’ Wow.