Review: ANIMAL FARM

by Lynn on March 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts

Original novel by George Orwell

Adapted by Anthony MacMahon

Directed by Ravi Jain

Set and costumes designed by Ken Mackenzie

Lighting by André du Toit

Composer and sound by Richard Feren

Choreography by Shannon Litzenberger

Cast: Leah Cherniak

Oliver Dennis

Raquel Duffy

Miriam Fernandes

Rick Roberts

Paolo Santalucia

Sugith Varughese

Guillermo Verdecchia

Jennifer Villaverde

Michaela Washburn

Sarah Wilson

A terrific production of George Orwell’s allegory that resonates for our world today in a compelling adaptation by Anthony MacMahon.

 The Story. A bit of back ground first.  George Orwell wrote “Animal Farm” in 1945 in England and it’s billed as an allegory for the Rise of Stalin and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It takes place on farmer Jones’ farm. Some farm animals lament how they are being worked so hard by Farmer Jones. They hate being under his yoke so they decide to have a revolution and over throw him.  They decree that all animals are equal, but over time that doesn’t prove to be the case. The pigs, lead by Napoleon, the head pig, seems to be organizing everything, The other animals are unhappy, overworked and hungry and don’t see how they are equal. Power has shifted from the humans to some of the animals, and so it goes again.

The Production. Anthony MacMahon’s adaptation of Orwell’s book cuts down on some of the characters and details of the novel but it is smart, funny and true to the spirit of the original. As with any classic “Animal Farm” stands the test of time. And while it referenced the Russian Revolution when Orwell wrote it, there are certainly other timely applications that can be made for it in 2018 thanks to MacMahon’s smart adaptation.

That said director Ravi Jain’s production beautifully realizes Anthony MacMahon’s adaptation.

At the top of the show the cast come forward in costume, stand at the lip of the stage, introduce themselves and tell us who they play. When these formalities are done they put on their head gear that depicts the animals they play. For example, Guillermo Verdecchia plays a donkey named Benjamin. The head gear has long ears and the snout of a donkey. Guillermo Verdecchia brings out Benjamin’s smarts and perception with his thoughtful carefully paced dialogue. Oliver Dennis plays Boxer, a hard-working horse with a distinctive face and ears. Boxer is a bit dim, but has a heart of gold. Rick Roberts plays Napoleon a pig and wears a costume of rich pink quilted looking material and a squashed nose.

The body language is very concise and spare.  A bent leg that is forward says all that needs to be said about Benjamin the wise donkey. Boxer walks with stiff, heavy legs as a horse would. Raquel Duffy as Mercy plays a chicken, in a sense the leader of these lovely cluckers. The walk-strut and head movements are jerky, with no doubt we are looking at chickens.  The performances are subtle and not over the top, this lets the audience do the work of imagining the full “humanity” of the animal.

Ken MacKenzie has designed a simple set of wood walls that are the outside of the barn, and doors that separate to reveal the inside of the barn. The hen house with a wired window is elevated and the hens appear behind it. They speak in a high pitched voice about the hardship they are living. In the scenes in which they must produce eggs at a whizzing rate, the eggs plop and are strewn behind them. One tends to laugh out loud here until one realizes the implications of what is happening to the animals as they are overworked to produce for the farm and the benefit of the pigs, that  run the show.

MacKenzie’s costumes are equally impressive. They are witty, funny, evocative and right for the animal/character. For the work animals such as Boxer and Benjamin, the clothes are brown work pants and shirts, boots and the scruffy headgear. For the spiffy, greedy pigs, they wear elaborate pink quilted costumes that look rich and very comfortable. The chickens are in shortish skirts, boots and tops. The flat beak is perfect in completing the picture.

Ravi Jain is a fine director who has a strong affinity for comedy. In Act I a character is killed and the scene is handled as a bit of slapstick. Blood gushing out of wounds is suggested by wads of red string/wool being thrown out of the wings on to the floor in front of the body. Hilarious. I am concerned that the humour might overpower the serious nature of the work but I would trust the audience to be sensitive to the story, the allegory and the application to today.

Jain also knows how to realize the chilling aspect of the play.  In Act II the animals are hungry and overworked. Boxer has hurt his leg and needs surgery and meds but can’t afford them. Matters are frantic. The angst is palpable. There is still humour from the chickens, but you can feel the ennui, the fear and the drudgery of it all.

In the book much is made of the fact that at the end one couldn’t tell the physical difference between the greedy, overbearing pigs and the greedy, overbearing humans they once despised, and with whom they are now doing business. In the production Napoleon, now in a spiffy suit and wavy hair, is having drinks with humans in suits and fancy hair. The irony is obvious.

Comment. To some the book of “Animal Farm” is irrelevant.  In this instance I have to quote the program note by designer Ken MacKenzie “Its (“Animal Farm”) greatest flaw, identified by a majority of 7th and 8th graders is that it’s obviously irrelevant to our modern more sophisticated lives. How often, for instance, do we have to deal with shifting leadership and changing values”?

Anybody who is ‘other’ is the enemy—this could be referencing refugees, indigenous people, anyone considered ‘other.’ It seems there is always an underdog and a superior class that is determined to keep the underdog down with rules changing in order to keep the underdog in his/her place.

Napoleon, a ruling pig, is considered to be always right, who is never wrong and won’t be criticized. Don’t we know anyone like that? Boxer gets sick but can’t afford to take off work for medical attention because there now is no medical insurance. He can’t afford the meds to help him.  Aren’t we familiar with that kind of goings on, either here or in another country?

Alas, Animal Farm will never be dated as long as the bully and the slick, charming talker take over and prove all “men” are not created equal. This production is a powerful story, well told.

Soulpepper presents.

Opened: March 15, 2018.

Closes: April 7, 2018.

Running Time:  2 hours, 20 minutes.

www.soulpepper.ca

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