Updated: Oct 13, 2020
★★★★½ - Delicious
Majestic Repertory Theatre's disturbing yet endearing presentation of "Animal Farm" more than lives up to the season's "Revolutionary" theme. Adapted for the stage by Ian Wooldridge, George Orwell's brilliant 1945 novella transcends time and place to mirror troubling societal and political trends that seem doomed by human nature to forever be repeated. This insightful voice from the past--like previous shows this season which also have firm roots in history--has much to say about the present, and is a fitting resolution to a season of bold, thought- provoking pieces.
A satirical allegory about Joseph Stalin and the 1917 Russian Revolution as well as a cautionary tale about the abuse of power, the story revolves around a group of farm animals who rise up and overthrow their drunken human master to create a utopian, classless society based on the Seven Commandments of Animalism. But their idyllic world devolves into autocracy when the smart, power-hungry pigs revise the commandments to form a cult of personality around despotic leader Napoleon, and then morph into the human beings they once despised. Thus to "All animals are equal" is added "but some are more equal than others" to justify their insatiable greed.
While watching "Animal Farm" it's impossible not to think about the current state of affairs. But director Troy Heard, who is also the company's artistic director, doesn't force the themes in the story or assign characters to represent living individuals. That's for us to figure out. His thoughtful casting has actors of the same animal groups sharing the same physical attributes. The pigs are more stout, while the horses, who simulate front legs by grasping walking sticks, are tall and lean. And coached by movement director Jason Nious, the performers suggest rather than impersonate animals with subtle movements and specific mannerisms.
Stylistically the presentation is like a companion piece to last fall's production of "An Octoroon," having a similar rustic design by The Design Ninjas and the feel of a homespun acting troupe putting on a show. Under the atmospheric, naturalistic lighting by Josh O'Brien, the big barn setting lets the performers literally get down and dirty in a playing space filled with coconut soil and framed by wooden walkways. The upstage walls are blackboards on which the Seven Commandments are scribbled in chalk, only to be modified here and there to suit the agenda of the evil swine, and the towering windmill is seen as a shadowy specter looming ominously over the barnyard.
We are so close to the action that it's like we're part of the downtrodden menagerie, and the oppression hits home when the propagandist pig Squealer, played by Kyle Jones, incites fear by spouting commands and statistics as he paces within arms reach. Jones has a steely-eyed stare that pierces across the space, his sinister spin-master growing more menacing as the play unfolds. As porcine leader Napoleon, the frightening T.J. Larsen looks like he stepped out of a backwoods horror flick, his scruffy appearance belying a diabolical mind. And both Whitley Wilburn as scapegoat Snowball and Ginny Beall as the wise Major craft convincing portraits of the nicer, more idealistic swine.
Much of the heart of the show belongs to the horses. The wonderful Joe Hammond gives profound poignancy to the pragmatic beast of burden Boxer, his tired shoulders hunched over in sadness and a resolve to "work harder"; the expressive and emotional Dina Emerson completely embodies loving mother Clover with head to toe movement; and the funny Venus Cobb lights up the stage as the vain, sugar-loving Mollie.
The entire ensemble gives it their all, including a stoic Jacob Moore as cynical donkey Benjamin; an amusing and manic Regg Davidson, proselytizing about SugarCandy Mountain as raven Moses; the graceful Ruliko Cronin as a kindly pigeon; an animated Randy Hample as the enthusiastic rooster; David Amitin as the drunken Farmer Jones; Adam Winteler as inquisitive Young Animal; energetic slobbery puppies; and a few other creatures who flesh out the gang. When the animals disappear or are executed one by one, we deeply feel their absences. The show is also a musical with folksy songs crafted by composer and sound designer Peter Fand, performed to perfection by the cast and aided by strolling Narrator Mike Vargovich on acoustic guitar.
The beginning of the show is controlled chaos and it takes some time to figure out who is what creature. While the hair and makeup design by Rowan Morris and Caroline Kangieser is great overall, on some of the performers the makeup doesn't read under the lights or represent the character depicted. The same goes for the costumes by Mary Wantland, which on the whole worked well but in a few cases didn't seem completely thought out.
Majestic Repertory Theatre's riveting "Animal Farm" is a sobering reminder that not all leaders have our best interests at heart.