Four legs good. Two legs bad. Simple enough.
This, of course, is the credo of the animals who overthrow Farmer Jones and establish their own domain, aka the Animal Farm. The Rogue Theatre is presenting an adaptation of George Orwell's novella as the first show of its season, and the inaugural production at its new theater in the Historic YWCA.
Most of us are familiar with the book. For many, it was required reading in school. We probably were intrigued with its premise and, perhaps, with the idea of talking animals in a grown-up's book. We even might have been a bit disturbed in a way we could not appreciate or even articulate. But a seed of apprehension just might have been planted.
For this production, Andrew Periale has adapted Orwell's story, and he follows the book pretty closely. It is given life by director Cynthia Meier and a group of actors who are committed, energetic and universally invested in Meier's vision.
The story is the rise and fall of a group—Farmer Jones' farm animals—who feel wronged. They experience a call to action in service of a universal, lofty principle. With the highest of intentions, they revolt—and revolutions are rarely bloodless—to establish a new order, pure of purpose and heart. They will share each other's fortunes and burdens. All will work hard. They will look out for each other.
All will be equal.
Ah, but individuals are complex. A relationship between two creates complications, and relationships among many increase exponentially our complexities. Needs differ. Talents and skills differ. Problems arise. Leaders emerge. Classes develop. Absolutes are challenged. Conflicts fester.
Some become, in Orwell's words, "more equal than others." So the new order stumbles, revealing itself, ironically, to be much like what it fought so hard to replace.
Actors Jill Baker, Avis Judd, Joseph McGrath, David Morden, John Shartzer and Daved Wilkins are the spirited corps of this ambitious romp. They are animals; they are narrators. They are singers and puppeteers, dancers and Greek chorus. They need to switch seamlessly from one entity to another. Sometimes, they execute multiple creatures and functions simultaneously.
And they do it quite well.
The audience works hard, too. There's much to take in and connect to and contemplate. Don't go if you don't want to be challenged.
The production's style requires some accommodation as well. Meier and company take an approach akin to the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht: We are always aware that we are watching a play. Actors play multiple roles, and they often address the audience. There is no convention of the fourth wall, and there is no attempt to foster a sense of real illusion—it is never intended that these folks onstage will attempt to make us believe they actually are animals. We are aware that the play represents a discussion of political ideas.
This presents a challenge for contemporary audiences. We have come to expect emotional connections in our theater-going. We identify with characters; we put ourselves inside their story. Their troubles and triumphs—rendered in a style that does attempt to create illusions—become ours.
That is not how this Animal Farm works. We watch with interest, but also a sense of detachment. We enjoy the humor. We ponder the plight of these characters, but we really don't identify with them. We engage, but not in an emotional way. There is a distance between us and them, and it is in that distance that the real impact of the piece is delivered.
This Animal Farm is full of fascinating elements. It is inventive and inviting; the story is supported by its production values. There's even a sort of soundtrack, overseen by music director by Harlan Hokin, who punctuates action with drum beats and cymbal clangs as the actors themselves contribute clucks and moos and clomps.
The evening is dense. Everything has a similar degree of intensity. The action never drags, but it beats with a ponderous rhythm. By the evening's end, we are quite worn out.
The production succeeds in what it seeks to achieve. But not everyone is going to embrace it.
The Rogue has been around for five years now. It has been consistent in its purpose, and its members keep aiming high. They work with passion to hit their mark. Even though we can't wholeheartedly embrace everything that dances—or stumbles—on their boards, we can applaud their integrity.