By ANNE SIEGEL
George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is among the most famous political novels of all time, and Ian Wooldridge’s adaptation is a masterful work that smartly takes the book’s themes from page to stage. In the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s intriguing production running Jan. 9 – Feb. 11, a cast of eight actors portray the community of Animal Farm – the animals as well as the hated, alcoholic owner, Farmer Jones.
The Milwaukee Rep is co-producing the play with Baltimore Center Stage.
The show’s director, May Adrales, joined the Milwaukee Rep as associate artistic director this year. She made a big impression here a few years ago as a freelance director with her Milwaukee Repertory Theater productions of Yellowman and The Mountain Top.
Those who read the book will find many familiar characters in the play, including: the pigs Napoleon, Squealer and Snowball; the faithful old horse Boxer; the middle-aged horse Clover; the elderly mule, Benjamin and, of course, the alcoholic, neglectful farmer. It is the tyranny of Farmer Jones (played by Milwaukee stage veteran Jonathan Gillard Daly, who also plays Benjamin the mule and other characters) that sets Orwell’s play in motion. Orwell wrote the book in 1945 as a testament to the decline of society under Joseph Stalin’s regime.
As Animal House opens, Moses, the farm’s elder pig (memorably played by Melvin Abston), gathers the other animals to tell of a dream or perhaps a vision that he had one evening. He recalls that the animals rose up and took over the farm. In doing so, they replace cruelty with kindness and understanding under the heading of “animalism.”
Moses’ revelation inflames the animals into action. They drive Farmer Jones and his wife from their property. What comes next is a set of rules that seem to keep changing as the pigs move in to take over Jones’ place as master of the farm. Remember, “four legs or can fly good, two legs bad?”
The production, staged in the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse, shows little evidence of anti-Stalin sentiment, aside from some goose-stepping during a celebration sequence. The production leans toward the universal, demonstrating that every society has its workhorses, its flighty fun-lovers, its busy bees and its leaders. The play’s mature theme and violence suggest that it is not suitable for very young children.
In Animal House, pigs are the ones to rule this roost. They reward animal loyalty and obedience and shun those who question any changes to the initially announced plan of action (if this system sounds like one enacted by our current president, any inferences are strictly coincidental).
Near the 90-minute play’s end, Benjamin sums up their sad existence: “Hunger, hardship and disappointment are our lot.”
Director May Andrales introduces all sorts of neat visual devices to keep the audience’s attention. Animal masks are mostly held in an actor’s one hand, allowing tools and other props to be carried in the other. In the first few scenes, a flighty, pampered horse named Molly (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) prances about, admiring the ribbons in her mane and tail. Once the ribbons are removed by the other animals as inappropriate attire for an animal, Molly quickly assesses that her life is not going to improve. She quietly exits the farm. The same actor appears in later sequences as Squealer, the pig. Stewart keeps a steady, unwavering voice as she begins to tell lie after lie. Napoleon’s justifications – as announced by Squealer – are so laughably outlandish that they add some much-needed humor.
Scenes are carefully balanced between dialogue and action to avoid losing focus in what is essentially a talky play (as are all political plays).
One of the most distinct aspects of this production is its industrial setting. Instead of setting Orwell’s work in a quaint barnyard, as is the case with the novel, set designer Andrew Boyce puts it squarely inside a run-down slaughterhouse. This is a smart move when considering Wisconsin audiences, many of whom can recall Milwaukee’s Patrick Cudahy and Madison’s Oscar Mayer Company meat-processing plants. The meat-packing facilities depicted onstage clearly have seen better days. Missing tiles on the wall and cracked flooring suggest that this revolution may not be the panacea the animals are looking for.
Another interesting departure is an onstage opening sequence that features human workers, clad in torn, once-white shirts and pants (the type worn by slaughterhouse workers). A “chain gang” of them struggle with a long, thick rope attached to a raw side of beef. Just as they succeed in moving the carcass to center stage, they begin to pant. After 10 seconds, a loud whistle forces them to re-start the same repetitive sequence.
One wishes a sequence of similar interest could have been inserted at the end of this play. Instead, the show basically slows to a trot and then blacks out.
All eight actors turn in good performances, and each actor doubles or triples his/her characters. Special mention goes to Jonathan Gillard Daly (whose craggy face perfectly mirrors the emotions felt by the mule), and Deborah Staples as Clover, the horse who tries to make sense of it all. A Milwaukee stage newcomer, Stephanie Weeks, excels at embodying Major, the old pig who unwittingly “unleashes” the animal revolution, and Boxer, the strong, steady workhorse who comes to a sad, untimely end.
Animal House continues at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, Wis. For more information, visit milwaukeerep.com. For tickets, the box office can be reached at 414-224-9490.