Review: "Animal Farm" is More Timely Than Ever in New Adaptation

Animal Farm

Adapted by Brandon Walker

Directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican

Presented by The Seeing Place at The Paradise Factory

64 E. 4th St., Manhattan, NYC

February 13-23, 2020

Laura Clare Browne, Erin Cronican, Brandon Walker. Photo by Russ Rowland
At a number of points in The Seeing Place's new adaptation of George Orwell's 1945 novella Animal Farm, if one didn't know better, one might assume that this was a play written specifically in response to America's current descent into authoritarianism. Unfortunate as those parallels are, they lend an additional queasy power to this production, which marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Orwell's allegory of the Soviet slide into Stalinism. Part of The Seeing Place's "The Body Politic"-themed season, Animal Farm features a quartet of actors embodying 28 characters to intimately stage this story of how revolution turns into repression.

The hallway leading to the theater door is adorned with with drawings of animal heads in profile, extending the farm beyond the theater space; and upon entering the theater itself, audience members are welcomed to "the meeting" by the actors, who are already in character—talking among themselves, moving on all fours, rolling in the straw strewn over the floor—and who offer seating in sections for cows, hens, and sheep along three of the walls. All of this establishes a sense of immediacy and a lack of boundaries between the audience and the farm that never entirely dissipates. The farm itself is suggested primarily by a small, low platform and some wooden crates and pallets that also function as objects such as pieces of the windmill that the animals labor to build or the podium behind which, after power is centralized, pig Squealer (Laura Clare Browne) dispenses Press-Secretary-esque spin and misinformation.

Laura Clare Browne, Brandon Walker, Erin
Cronican, William Ketter. Photo by Russ Rowland

 
As the narrative begins, Old Major (William Ketter) delivers a passionate oration on oppression and inequality on Manor Farm. He points out that the humans in control produce nothing while appropriating and consuming the products of the animals' labor, confining them in return to miserable lives with insufficient food when land could comfortably support many more animals than occupy it in deprivation under human management. A central tenet of his revolutionary advocacy is that, after liberating themselves, the animals must never become like humans (that this might figure equally the challenges facing, for instance, postcolonial nations demonstrates the wider possible applications of Orwell's allegory). Shortly, however, Old Major dies, and some of the other animals codify his philosophy as an -ism, propose teaching all of the animals to read and write, and reject the consolations offered by a raven's (William Ketter) analog of organized religion. After the animals have not been fed for three days, they rebel against the farm's owner, the oft-drunk Jones (Brandon Walker), and seize the land.

The animals use the chalkboard at the front of the performance area to signal their new way of life with a new name for Manor Farm, Animal Farm, and a list of commandments. A flag and a song that becomes an anthem help too to engender and fortify the kind of "imagined community" that Benedict Anderson has theorized. The naming of a battle and awarding honors in its aftermath also help to create the equivalent of a national mythology. Soon enough, though, we begin to see arguments over fairness, difficulties with mandatory education, and the reduction of idea(l)s to simpler forms, most prominently in the maxim "Four legs good, two legs bad." The pigs begin to act as a ruling class; some animals, such as horse Mollie (Laura Clare Browne) find comfort much more tempting than work; and anti-intellectualism and disinterest in and impatience with long-term planning and vision increase. Even voter apathy has its moment. Eventually, pig Napoleon (Brandon Walker) ends shared governance and replaces it with an emphasis on loyalty and obedience, marking the turning point that will govern everything to come.
Brandon Walker. Photo by Russ Rowland
Many of the events in the play recognizably echo symptoms of the illness afflicting our own contemporary body politic. The focus under Napoleon on the individual leader and not the system or office; Squealer's unabashed rewriting of history and smearing of erstwhile, collectively oriented farm leader Snowball (Erin Cronican) in order to create a convenient target for blame and a simple, understandable enemy; and Napoleon's breaking of norms because strictly speaking, there is nothing in writing that says that he can't all resonate with the events of recent years. So too do Squealer's reliance on semantic technicalities as cover and justification, the way that we hear the human farmers spreading anti-animal propaganda by repeating sensational rumors, the conviction of well-meaning Boxer the horse (Brandon Walker) that Comrade Napoleon is always right, and, perhaps most worryingly apposite, Boxer's admission as things get worse that he would never have believed that such things could happen on their farm.

Erin Cronican. Photo by Russ Rowland
The cast, dressed all in black, use their bodies and voices rather than costuming or props to create their (mostly animal) characters and inhabit them with well-observed physical detail. The postures, for example, of Walker's Boxer and Ketter's donkey Benjamin lend a feeling of real effort appropriate to the work(load) under which the equines suffer; and when an animal like Squealer walks upright, it is on her toes, preserving in the slightly shaky effort involved the sense that this is a pig imitating a human; but less foregrounded details, like Wetter's way of sitting when playing a dog, are no less significant to the atmosphere as a whole. In combination with the physical aspects of the performances, the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue (if that can be said of people acting as animals) creates its own rhythm of farm life and speech, and the sporadic non-dialogue animal vocalizations contribute to this atmosphere as well. The farm's de facto anthem becomes part of the soundscape too, and it is repetition helps to give impact to its eventual abolition. The cast keeps the various characters distinct and easily identifiable, with Browne's brightly disingenuous Squealer and Cronican's determinedly idealistic Snowball particularly memorable, the latter an excellent foil for Walker's Napoleon, who fittingly comes more to resemble the actor's Jones by the end.

If, as Hamlet argues, theater holds a mirror up to nature, then in Animal Farm, nature holds a mirror up to us. We would do well to look on the reflection.  

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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