Those pigs. Can’t trust them, can’t ignite a revolution without them. Why can’t they just be content with being what they are–bacon?
Pigs, propaganda, the proletariat and politics proliferate in Center Stage’s visceral, beautiful and chillingly relevant production of Animal Farm, George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical novel about freedom and dictatorships.
Ian Wooldridge’s savage adaptation and Mary Andrales’ visually gutsy direction uses the power of the actor—enhanced by masks and simple puppetry—to tell a cautionary fable about how easy it can be to slip-slide from liberation and equality to fascism and oppression.
Animal Farm begins at an English farm populated by overworked animals whipped and mistreated by a mean, drunken farmer. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has created an abattoir setting—skewed white tiled walls splattered with effluvia, bloody animal parts hanging from hooks and impaled animal heads. Composers/Sound Designers: Nathan A. Roberts & Charles Coes add industrial screeches and rhythmic pounding that render the farm more of a factory than a rural setting.
Amid this slaughterhouse atmosphere, the animals toil, clad in Izumi Inobi’s striking comrade uniforms—identical white jumpsuits filthy with God-knows-what, white skullcaps that render them almost cyborg-like. The animals are personalized with puppet masks held at chest level so as not to obscure the actors’ faces, as well as bits of fur or feathers and tails. It is really more of a concentration camp, as the animals have to kill their own and haul them to the abattoir for processing—a ghastly duty.
It’s no wonder the animals decide to revolt. First, like many of America’s slaves, they learn to read and write in secret. Once educated—the pigs being the smartest learn the quickest—then they rise. With the farmer and his wife chased off the farm, the giddy animals rechristen the place Animal Farm and vow to create a non-violent utopia for all creatures great and small.
These ideals are compromised once the pigs declare themselves leaders, led by the power-grabby Napoleon (portrayed vaingloriously by Melvin Abston), sycophant enforcer Squealer (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, who plays perky with frightening menace) and Snowball (played with militaristic brawn by Brendan Titley), the Bravepork of the trio who starts out as a hero before being painted as a traitor. One of the witty touches has the pigs putting up propaganda posters about Snowball—the most prescient poster reading “If you see something, say something.”
The early glory days of the revolution become just another grind for the other animals—literal workhorse Boxer (a brutally subjugated Stephanie Weeks), who numbs himself with unceasing labor and recalls every slave brainwashed into thinking that whatever the master says must be right; his questioning friend Clover (Deborah Staples, affecting as a timid and intimidated worker) and Benjamin (Jonathan Gillard Daly, all gauntness and haunted eyes), an elderly mule who remembers everything. The rest of the ensemble play various critters and are so nuanced in their portrayals you forget they are playing animals until you hear a subtle snort, whinny or bleat.
closes April 1, 2018
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Meanwhile the pigs become more and more like their human oppressors—sleeping in beds, drinking, trading crops and goods, killing (“for the right reasons”) and wearing clothes. They terrorize and cruelly overwork the other animals, with Squeaker blasting out fake statistics about how good they have it and the success of the farm.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm to warn readers about authoritarian regimes and how those in power exploit and suppress the common people all the while telling them it is not only good for them but good for the country.
Sound familiar? Animal Farm takes you back through the last year of our current administration and into the callous present, a fusillade of fake news, manipulated media and data, bold-faced lies and chaos and scandal serving as subterfuge for what’s really going on.
The cynical truth is that the farm at the end of Animal Farm is no better than it was when human-run—and in some ways worse because it is animals abusing animals. In many ways, it is similar to our American Revolution. We’ve moved so far away from our Founding Fathers’ ideals and principles that we are no longer united but at war and the enemy is us.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm adapted by Ian Wooldridge . Director: May Adrales. Featuring: Melvin Abston, Francis Cabatac, Jonathan Gollard Daly, Surasee Das, Deborah Staples, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Brendan Titley, Stephanie Weeks. Scenic Designer: Andrew Boyce. Costume Designer: Izumi Inabi. Lighting Designer: Noele Stollmack. Composers/Sound Designers: Nathan A. Roberts & Charles Coes. Movement Director: Nancy Lemenager. Assistant Director: Simon Evans. Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.