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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
With all due respect to Mr. Orwell, some stage adaptations of his novel Animal Farm are more equal than others. The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's rendition is equal parts didacticism and entertainment, a smart and uncomfortably timely vehicle to jolly up a hot summer evening under the stars in Topanga Canyon. Step aside, Shakespeare. A different kind of political beast joins the Theatricum repertory.
Director Ellen Geer is using Peter Hall's 1985 adaptation which employs the barely noticeable framework of two children narrating the story of the overthrow of Manor Farm and the revolution's decidedly uncivilized consequences. Given the Geer family's lefty roots, politicized theater sits comfortably in every Theatricum season. Ellen Geer and her players could easily have turned Animal Farm into a diatribe. But, no. Hitlerian allusions are about the closest this production comes to direct historical references. None of the brainwashing, dictatorial pigs sports a blond comb-over or orange-ish skin.
Indeed, the look of the animals is one of the production's strongest features. Costume designer Vicki Conrad has her performers in outfits ranging from a simple snout and a set of ears, to full masks for the dogs, towering headgear for the horses, a shearling vest for Muriel the sheep, and boas for the chickens. When the red-crested rooster Cameron Rose struts on stage, our scene is set. Conrad's work is whimsical, imaginative, and never adorable. Coupled with Lexi Pearl's clever animal movement direction, Geer's cast brings forth a quite convincing menagerie.
This being Orwell, they're portraying a menagerie with recognizably human sensibilities. The hugely oppressed animals of Manor Farm are overworked, mal-treated, and not fairly compensated for their labor while Farmer Jones (played by Steve Fisher) lives in comfort. Ancient pig Old Major (Thad Geer) prophesies a rebellion of beasts against humans, but does not live to see it. With ambitious pigs Snowball (Christopher Yarrow) and Napoleon (Mark Lewis) leading the charge, Jones is driven out and the animals take over the running of the farm. They establish a beastly code and figure out ways to produce their own food, sharing the labor and the rewards equally until a faction of the pigs decides that this egalitarian system isn't working and gradually seizes the power for itself.
Within this fast-developing totalitarian regime, reason falls away, of course, and nobody thinks for him or herself except the entities wielding power. Boxer the draft horse (Max Lawrence) decides "Napoleon is always right and attacks every problem with the same solution of "I will work harder. The sheep are taught to bleat pro-pig platitudes whenever anybody raises an objection. Benjamin the Mule (Rodrick Jean-Charles) keeps his feelings quiet for fear of reprisals and Napoleon raises a couple of puppies to become attack dogs to destroy or chase off anybody who opposes him. His toadying second-in-command Squealer (Melora Marshall) explains away every dictatorial decision Napoleon makes and most of the animals are either too ignorant or too frightened to raise an objection.
As archetypal as these characters are, the actors still make them appealing (or a-squealing, as the case may be). Marshall's fawning Squealer is a perfect counterpart to Lewis's world-conquering Napoleon. Lawrence conveys Boxer's brute strength and blind idealism while Lea Madda is sweetly dim as Mollie, the ribbon-loving horse who prefers to serve man. Jackie Nicole's Muriel the sheep bleats out her penetrating questions with just the right dose of innocent philosophizing and Thad Geer's single scene as Old Major is crusty and memorable.
Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell's anthem-like songs have a folksy beat and are very much in the Theatricum's wheelhouse. Ensemble players move in and out of the Marshall McDaniel's onstage band. Perhaps with an eye towards not frightening younger audiences, Ellen Geer has the animal vs. animal violence take place offstage. Basically, a group of oppositional beasts are chased into a barn, a lot of noise rings out, and they don't return.
Do our young narrators figure out the problem with "pigs seizing power and re-writing the rules? It's difficult to say, but at least they're present as witnesses. Somebody will undoubtedly take a Trump-era overlay to Animal Farm before the next four years have run their course. For now, the Hall/Geer beasts of Orwell are plenty beastly.
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Animal Farm by George Orwell, adapted by Peter Hall
Lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee Directed by Ellen Geer
Cast: Clayton Cook, Steve Fisher, Sierra Rose Friday, Thad Geer, Katherine Griffith, Holly Hawk, Rodrick Jean-Charles, Max Lawrence, Mark Lewis, Lea Madda, Melora Marshall, Shane McDermott, Jackie Nicole, Christopher Yarrow, Maya Brattkus, Caleb Blue Briskman, Evangeline Edwards, David Faulkner, Jessica Gillette, Bethany Koulias, Casey Maione, Jeffrey McFarland, Matt Pardue, Clarence Powell, Larson Rainier, Cameron Rose, Jacquelin Schofield, Alexander Sheldon, Jonathan Sheldon, Sky Wahl, Jordan Zyblski, Lauren Zyblski.
Band: Caleb Blue Briskman, David Faulkner, Jessica Gillette, Holly Hawk, Bethany Koulias, Jeffrey McFarland, Matt Pardue, Cameron Rose, Alexander Sheldon, Daniel Sugimoto, Sky Wahl Assistant Directors: Jackie Nicole, Andrea Fiorentini
Animal Movement: Lexi Pearl
Costume Design: Vicki Conrad
Production Stage Manager: Kim Cameron
Music Director/Sound Designer: Marshall McDaniel
Lighting Designer: Zachary Moore
Assistant Stage Manager/Properties Master: Karen Osborne
Plays through October 2, 2016 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga (310) 455-3723, www.theatricum.com.
Running time: Two hour with one ten minute intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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