BWW Review: George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM Speaks Directly to the World's Current Political Turmoil
Most of us were required at some point in our education to read George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM, a book about talking animals who overthrow their cruel master, told from a child's point of view. It's theme of satirizing the corrupting influence of power reflects Orwell's own political views after living on the streets with the poorest of the poor, particularly the miners in Northern England, which caused him to develop pro-Socialist attitudes. After fighting against Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, he realized a primary issue to social equality was the use of propaganda by totalitarian states to influence the minds of the populace against groups deemed to be of a lesser value or a threat to the way they wished the world to function, a major theme in his groundbreaking book.
ANIMAL FARM, Orwell's brilliant political satire about the corrupting influence of power, charts the fall of idealism and the rise of tyranny after the animals of Manor Farm rise up against their oppressive human owner in a struggle for rights, equality, gaining the right to make their own choices on how to live their lives. Onstage, the story is read by two children, the girl (Sierra Rose Friday) and boy (Shane McDermott), keeping the audience informed as to the action taking place or what has gone on off stage leading to that particular scene. It all begins as the animals, led by Snowball, an idealistic pig, take over the farm from Mr. Jones. Their plan goes well at first; all the animals are equal and content. But eventually, several of the other pigs, led by Napoleon and Squealer, yield to the lure of power and start to make decisions that serve their own interests best, eventually leading them to proclaim that some animals are more equal than others. The quote, "absolute power corrupts absolutely," certainly applies to Orwell's masterful work.
The acclaimed stage adaptation of Orwell's ANIMAL FARM is now being presented at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum as part of the company's "Rising Up" Summer 2017 Repertory Season running through October 1. Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer directs the adaptation by Sir Peter Hall, originally produced by Britain's National Theatre, which features music by Richard Peaslee and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. Marshall McDaniel directs a band of cows, sheep, dogs, hens and farmers on instruments ranging from sax, clarinet, oboe, violin, melodica, guitar and banjo to drums and percussion, with the most brilliant and realistic animal movement choreography by Lexi Pearl. Costumer Vicky Conrad has designed magnificent visuals for all the animals, all of which allow for the most intricate movement to take place, seemingly effortlessly given the skill of the actors.
Brilliantly directed by Ellen Geer, each of the actors portraying the various types of animals never vary from their animalistic ways, from the slouching pigs to the boa-wing flapping chickens and rooster, the menacing wolf-like dogs, the hard-working horses, to the sheep and goat who seem to follow along with whatever they are told to do or believe. Every single actor is a joy to watch, especially when they move through the audience grunting, squealing or barking as they pass you by!
For those not familiar with or who have forgotten the characters, here is a brief description of each, the actor portraying them, and what they represent in the politically charged tale:
Napoleon (Mark Lewis) - The pig who emerges as the leader of Animal Farm after the Rebellion. Based on Joseph Stalin, Napoleon uses military force (assisted by his loyal attack dogs) to intimidate the other animals and consolidate his power. In his supreme craftiness, Napoleon proves more treacherous than his counterpart, Snowball, when his absolute power corrupts him away from what all the animals originally agreed was best for their collective farm in their Seven Commandments. Lewis is a masterful actor and morphs perfectly as corruption takes over his soul.
Snowball (Christopher Yarrow) - The pig who challenges Napoleon for control of Animal Farm after the Rebellion. Based on Leon Trotsky, Snowball is intelligent, passionate, eloquent, and less subtle and devious than his counterpart, Napoleon. Snowball seems to win the loyalty of the other animals and cement his power until Napoleon, seeing Snowball as a threat, convinces the rest of the animals to get rid of him.
Boxer (Max Lawrence) - The tall, black cart-horse whose incredible strength, dedication, and loyalty play a key role in the early prosperity of Animal Farm and the later completion of the windmill. Quick to help but rather slow-witted, Boxer shows much devotion to Animal Farm's ideals but little ability to think about them independently. He naïvely trusts the pigs to make all his decisions for him. His two mottoes are "I will work harder" and "Napoleon is always right." Lawrence is brilliant in the role, his every movement and stance demonstrating the horse's power to always get the job done well.
Clover (Katherine Griffith) - A good-hearted female cart-horse and Boxer's close friend. Clover often suspects the pigs of violating one or another of the Seven Commandments originally agreed upon by all the animals, but she repeatedly blames herself for misremembering the commandments. Griffith adds in more wisdom of the elderly which is not heeded by the "herd" mentality of the farm animals.
Mollie (Lea Madda) - The vain, flighty mare who pulls Mr. Jones's carriage, sort of the Kardassian of the farm. Mollie craves the attention of human beings and loves being groomed and pampered. She has a difficult time with her new life on Animal Farm, as she misses wearing ribbons in her mane and eating sugar cubes. She represents the petit bourgeoisie that fled from Russia a few years after the Russian Revolution. Madda is perfectly light-hearted in the role, prancing about the stage in her high heeled boots, especially when singing about her new life away from Animal Farm where she gets to wear "27 Ribbons" in her mane, maintaining her vanity by giving the humans what they want.
Squealer (Melora Marshall) - The pig who spreads Napoleon's propaganda among the other animals. Squealer justifies the pigs' monopolization of resources and spreads false statistics pointing to the farm's success. Orwell uses Squealer to explore the ways in which those in power often use rhetoric and language to twist the truth and gain and maintain social and political control. Marshall definitely made me think of the White House Press Secretary!
Old Major (Thad Geer) - The prize-winning boar whose vision of a socialist utopia serves as the inspiration for the Rebellion. Three days after describing the vision and teaching the animals the song "Beasts of England," Major dies, leaving Snowball and Napoleon to struggle for control of his legacy. Orwell based Major on both the German political economist Karl Marx and the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin. Geer is like the wonderful Grandfather who shares his knowledge, hoping the next generation will have a better life.
Benjamin (Roderick Jean-Charles) - The long-lived donkey who refuses to feel inspired by the Rebellion. Benjamin firmly believes that life will remain unpleasant no matter who is in charge. Of all of the animals on the farm, he alone comprehends the changes that take place, but he seems either unwilling or unable to oppose the pigs. The voice of reason remains silent, even when confronting the sheep who follow along with everything Napoleon tells them - and chaos ensues.
Muriel (Jackie Nicole) - The white goat who reads the Seven Commandments to Clover whenever Clover suspects the pigs of violating their prohibitions. Nicole's goatly stuttering vocalizations and both laughable and totally brilliant in their execution.
The Dogs - Napoleon adopts the 4 puppies left behind after the Rebellion in order to "educate" them. They grow up to become vicious, wolf-like creatures, whose primary motivation is to protect Napoleon from everyone else on the farm. Other than Steve Fisher, none of the other 3 actors who portray the dogs are credited in the program, which is too bad as they deserve all the kudos I can lavish on them for their energy and stamina while running around on all fours throughout the production.
Minimus (Holly Hawk) - The poet pig who writes verse about Napoleon and pens the banal patriotic song "Animal Farm, Animal Farm" to replace the earlier idealistic hymn "Beasts of England," which Old Major passes on to the others.
Moses (Clayton Cook) - The tame raven who spreads stories of Sugarcandy Mountain, the paradise to which animals supposedly go when they die. Moses plays only a small role in the play, but Orwell uses him to explore how communism exploits religion as something with which to pacify the oppressed. Cook is often seen hanging out up on a platform in the trees, flapping his wings to get attention.
And kudos to all the ensemble members who so marvelously portray the many farm animals!
And the human characters in ANIMAL FARM, often seen drinking at their local pub, The Red Lion:
Mr. Jones (Steve Fisher) - The often-drunk farmer who runs the Manor Farm before the animals stage their Rebellion and establish Animal Farm. Mr. Jones is an unkind master who indulges himself while his animals lack food; he thus represents Tsar Nicholas II, whom the Russian Revolution ousted.
Mr. Frederick (uncredited in program) - The tough, shrewd operator of Pinchfield, a neighboring farm. Based on Adolf Hitler, the ruler of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, Mr. Frederick proves an untrustworthy neighbor.
Mr. Pilkington (Thad Geer) - The easygoing gentleman farmer who runs Foxwood, a neighboring farm. Mr. Frederick's bitter enemy, Mr. Pilkington represents the capitalist governments of England and the United States.
Mr. Whymper (Lea Madda) - The human solicitor whom Napoleon hires to represent Animal Farm in human society. Mr. Whymper's entry into the Animal Farm community (on a bicycle!) initiates contact between Animal Farm and human society, alarming the common animals.
According to the play's director Ellen Geer, "In a revolution, things happen so quickly that sometimes, before people know it, the pendulum has swung right back again. The new leaders seize and hold onto power using military strength, then lull the populace with propaganda. That's why apathy is so frightening. We delude ourselves into thinking that everything will be better, but we don't do the necessary work to make sure those in power don't abuse it."
With its one-of-a-kind outdoor setting in the heart of Topanga Canyon and its roots in the 1950s McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist - when actor Will Geer created the theater as a haven for blacklisted actors - Theatricum is best known for its productions that frame contemporary social issues through the lens of classic literature. Ellen Geer's amazingly relevant production of ANIMAL FARM should encourage all who see it to Rise Up and Speak Out against tyranny before it is too late. And do it now before the lies become truths!
ANIMAL FARM continues through Oct. 1, running in repertory with The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Other Desert Cities and Trouble in Mind. Tickets range from $10-$38.50. Theatricum productions are recommended for ages 10 and up. Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. The outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic in designated areas before a performance.
Photo captions and credits:
1. Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott - Photo by Ian Flanders
2. Lea Madda, Holly Hawk, Thad Geer and Jacquelin Schofield - Photo by Liam Flanders
3. The chickens: Lauren Zbylski, Jordann Zbylski, Bethany Koulias - Photo by Liam Flanders
4. Front: Melora Marshall, Clarence Powell, Thad Geer, Christopher Yarrow, Mark Lewis, Jessica Gillette. Back: Sky Wahl, Holly Hawk, Evangeline Edwards - Photo by Liam Flanders
5. Clarence Powell, Melora Marshall, Holly Hawk, Thad Geer (center), Christopher Yarrow, Mark Lewis - Photo by Ian Flanders
6. The horses: Lea Madda, Katherine Griffith, Max Lawrence - Photo by Liam Flanders
7. The horses: Max Lawrence, Lea Madda, Katherine Griffith - Photo by Liam Flanders
8. The pigs: Melora Marshall, Evangeline Edwards, Mark Lewis, Clarence Powell, Thad Geer, Christopher Yarrow - Photo by Liam Flanders
9. The sheep and donkey: Bridgette Campbell, Maya Brattkus, Jessica Gillette,
Dave Faulkner (in bull head), Rodrick Jean-Charles - Photo by Liam Flanders
10. The goat: Jackie Nicole - Photo by Ian Flanders
11. Farmer Jones: Steve Fisher - Photo by Liam Flanders
12. Horses Boxer and Mollie: Max Lawrence and Lea Madda - Photo by Ian Flanders
13. The storytellers: Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott - Photo by Liam Flanders