Troubled Times Down on the Farm

Reviewer: Lisa Purchase Kelly

Venue: Malcolm Field Theatre SVSU


On Wednesday evening SVSU’s Theatre Department performed Ian Wooldridge’s stage adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, directed by David Rzeszutek. It was one of their first foray’s back into live theatre with a live audience at the Malcolm Ford, and there was a joyful air of comradery and anticipation both onstage and in the seats. And the pleasant start to the play – soft lighting on a little girl (the Storyteller, played by Scout McCullough) playing with her toys, surrounded by gentle barnyard sounds – seemed to welcome us back to the soothing and comfortable environment of the theatre.

But theatre is not here to soothe us. And Animal Farm is not a comfortable play to watch. 

Animal Farm would seem to be a children’s story; a homey farmstead with talking animals. But things get real, quickly, as this “fairy tale” becomes a tale of greed, betrayal, deceit, oppression, manipulation, corruption, murder, hunger for power, and a warning that history can repeat itself. Written in the wake of World War II and published amidst the rise of the Soviet Union, Animal Farm is Orwell’s biting satire on totalitarianism. Orwell’s contemporary, Julian Symons wrote, “In a hundred years’ time perhaps, Animal Farm may be simply a fairy story; today it is a political satire with a good deal of point.” We are seventy-five years in, and it is still holding a good deal of point. This is still no fairy tale.

In Rzeszutek’s stage version, a wise pig, Old Major (played by Glecia Tatum), waxes rhapsodic about a dream they had, of a world where the oppressive Farmer Jones (a thrilling 9’ monster of a man who towers over his barnyard, played by Ethan Bach encased in some clever costuming) no longer controls his animals nor exploits their work, and the animals are free to make their own decisions and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Tatum beautifully sings a rousing anthem, and the other barnyard animals join in Old Major’s vison for new order. When Old Major dies, the other pigs take Major’s vision to a literal revolution and the animals oust Farmer Jones and take over their own farm. The animals (only some of whom have taught themselves to read) write out the tenets of Old Major’s vision on the inside of the big barn door. This idyllic scene soon begins to crumble as the pigs become consumed with self-importance and begin to oppress and exploit all the other animals. In the dark, behind closed barn doors, the promises and slogans shift and the Squealer pig – the “press secretary” pig — (played loathsomely by Scott LaMont) equivocates for the top pig, Napoleon (played by Holly Houck), distorting and denying Animal Farm’s history to suit the current circumstance. Eventually it becomes evident that the pigs have merely taken the place of the hated farmer, all the ideals have been erased, and the animals are left with only this:  ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.

While I was watching the play (and in keeping with the allegorical animal aesthetic), the Boiling Frog Metaphor came to mind: If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of nice comfortable water and then turn on the heat, the frog will slowly and complacently let himself be boiled.

In that sense, I was watching all these animals be boiled onstage. Their pleasant and promising situation gradually turned into a fatal environment while the hapless animals watched their rights and even their livelihood evaporate — by degrees, as it were – and lacked the awareness or motivation to escape.

The uncomfortable part for the audience is that we all bring our own experiences to this viewing, and we will all come away with our own take on what it means for us today. Orwell’s original story was pretty pointedly about specific people and specific situations seventy-five ears ago, but who do these animals represent today? Which modern-day politicians, political parties, or business moguls come to mind for each of us? And what part do we play on this farm? Are we greedy self-serving Pigs (additional pigs Snowball and Minimus played by Lexie Shultz and Kate Hudkins)? Or faithful but oppressed Cart-Horses (sweet Boxer and Clover played by Jared Kaufman and Katelynn Bell)? Some of us may see ourselves in the portrayal of Mollie, the fancy be-ribboned Horse (played by Holly Greif) who kind of misses the way things used to be. Maybe we are the chatty Pigeon (played by Brett Greathouse), who like to stir things up and comment but doesn’t make any effort to improve things. Or maybe we’re the knowledgeable Donkey (Benjamin, played by Briellé Myles-Williams) who is just trying to keep their head down and stay out of trouble. Many of us may be the Young Horse (Lydia Bolzman) who joins them in the end, unaware of their own barnyard history and what events led them to their current circumstances. Or the Raven (Moses, played by Erica Close) who focuses exclusively on promises of a better world beyond this barnyard in order to ignore and rise above the troubling difficult world of the Animal Farm. 

The performers do excellent work providing the story, showcasing the complex motivations and shortcomings of the various characters; it is up to the audience members to do their own work interpreting this story for themselves.

Rzeszutek’s directing keeps things moving, producing a run-time of about 90 minutes with no intermission. Jerry Dennis’ two-dimensional set creates a beautiful and functional backdrop for the chilling tale, and the shadow puppets (operated by Dani Durst and Meg Campbell) work surprisingly well depicting background action. The sound designer and sound operator, Peggy Mead-Finizio and Drea Brown, deserve a shout-out for pulling off an intricate and well-timed show for multiple voice-overs, underscoring, and ambient sounds that blended seamlessly with the live performers’ voices onstage.

Animal Farm at SVSU’s Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts runs Wednesday, November 17 through Sunday, November 21, with performance times at 7:30 W-Sa and at 3:00 on Sunday. Tickets are $15.00 each, and can be purchased either On-line [SVSU Performing Arts Center Tickets (etix.com)] or at the Box Office (one hour prior to an event).

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