In this age of renewed book banning—including George Orwell’s often challenged 1945 satirical novella “Animal Farm”—one has to wonder why those in charge are afraid of sharing ideas and promoting thought and discussion. The answer is made viscerally clear in A Noise Within’s (ANW) stellar production of the play “Animal Farm,” adapted from Orwell’s book by the great director Peter Hall in 1984 (a pivotal Orwellian year).
Directed by ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, this powerful production will give you chills even as you laugh and marvel at its artistry. Exceptional acting and delivery, creative costuming with a Mad Max feel, thoroughly dynamic staging and live music (Rod Bagheri, David Catalan and Nathan Johnson) combine to create a riveting—and frightening—theatrical experience.
The wood-framed stage (designed by Angela Balogh Calin) is backdropped by a wood farmhouse and strewn with hay, evoking the barnyard of Manor Farms, where a drunken Mr. Jones neglects his animals. Inspired by a boar named Old Major (ANW co-Artistic Director Geoff Elliott), the animals soon revolt and take over the farm, redubbing it Animal Farm.
The actors are rendered as animals cleverly, with partial masks for the pigs (Dillon Nelson); dirty yet textured clothing with a Mad Max feel plus feathers or wool as appropriate; contouring and dirtying makeup (Tony Valdés); and flowing wig manes for the horses (Valdés). The actors playing horses also use canes for their front legs and move with equine gates.
The horses are the most “human” of the animals, including thoughtful Clover (Deborah Strang) reflecting on events as they unfold, but also prancing young Mollie (Nicole Javier), who decides to return to the Matrix, as it were, by giving herself over to a horse-cart driver just so she can wear ribbons in her hair. Mollie’s realization of her own enslavement—told through song—is heartbreaking.
After the revolt, new egalitarian rules are written on the farmhouse wall (projection design by Nick Santiago), asserting that all animals are equal and shouldn’t act like men. These rules are later reduced for the “less intelligent” animals—who even have trouble voting—to the simple mantra, “Four legs good, two legs bad.”
Nonetheless, the pigs—the most intelligent animals on the farm, as they frequently remind the others—start disagreeing about how things should run. Events take a definitive turn when Napoleon (Rafael Goldstein), a self-described “practical” pig of few words, disagrees with benevolent visionary pig Snowball’s (Stanley Andrew Jackson) idea that the animals should build a windmill to reduce their labor. Napoleon unleashes on Snowball two vicious dogs he secretly raised from puppies.
In the ensuing pig power vacuum, loquacious pig Squealer (Trisha Miller) steps in as Napoleon’s spokesperson—or rather spinner of lies—assuaging the other animals with simple but skewed reasoning that Napoleon’s puzzling new directives are for their collective benefit. Unwittingly supporting the pigs’ authority is Boxer (Elliott), an old horse well respected by the other animals, whose answer to all setbacks is “work harder” and who trusts everything Napoleon says.
Napoleon and the other pigs soon move into the farmhouse that the animals had agreed was forbidden and begin selling the animals’ produce to “two-legs-bad” men for money—including the eggs of hens who starve to death in protest. The rules on the wall mysteriously change to justify their behavior, soon qualifying the fundamental tenet “all animals are equal” with “some are more equal than others.”
The pigs also start carrying and using guns to maintain sadistic control. One especially affecting scene has Squealer draw her gun on donkey Benjamin (Jeremy Rabb)—who can read and literally sees the writing on the wall but refuses to act—threatening him with it until he laughs at her bidding while simpering in fear at her feet. Though one might have read “Animal Farm” the book, experiencing such callous abuse of power on stage makes it feel repulsively real.
The scary truth of “Animal Farm,” and the reason the book on which it’s based is considered “banned,” is that its fascist scenario has happened before and could happen again—and may even be happening now (case in point: banning books). One comes away from AWN’s amazing production not only sympathetically feeling the fright and suffering of the other animals but really hating pigs—and today’s real-life human politicians who act like them.
“Animal Farm” continues at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through Oct. 2, with performances Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25 for adults and $18 for students. For tickets and information, including talk-backs and student matinees, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org. Run time is 2 hours with intermission. Masking is required.