Pitch-perfect adaptation makes for brutal, thought-provoking journey
|Steppenwolf for Young Adults presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
The world is a scary place, getting scarier by the minute, observes Director Hallie Gordon in her program note for Animal Farm. Violent acts have become so commonplace, it’s difficult to be online without stumbling upon at least one new horrifying story every day. Power is abused, those who need help the most aren’t getting it. Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ world premiere adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel (a staple of English classes nationwide) is set in the 1940’s, yet feels shockingly modern. Then and now, the best of intentions can go awry, and human (or animal) nature is easily corrupted. Thanks to tight direction of a solid adaptation, starkly effective production values and spot-on character development, this Animal Farm is a brutal, thought-provoking journey for students and adults alike.
In the post-Depression era, Manor Farm is suffering: the previously kind farmer Jones has lost all his money and now wallows in alcohol and animal abuse. Tired of being mistreated, the animals fight back, running Jones off the farm entirely. Led by intelligent and benevolent pig Snowball (Sean Parris), every creature from hen to horse works together and strives to follow the seven tenets of the newly-christened Animal Farm. (Among them: no drinking alcohol, no killing other animals, and remembering that all animals are equal.) But when power-hungry Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) overthrows Snowball, Animal Farm takes a dark and sinister turn, betraying the very idealism on which it was founded.
Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945, four years before his other dystopian classic, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Both are still widely read for a reason: the basic themes are shockingly relevant, maybe even more so than when they were written. Could Orwell have predicted a future when graphic violence is so common, it’s practically passé; when humans clamor for power and anyone with compassion runs the risk of being called a socialist, or worse, a hippie? Or is human nature really just that susceptible to nastiness? Adaptor Althos Low (the pen name for Shanghai Low Theatricals, a Chicago-based adaptation) has retained Orwell’s pitch-perfect storytelling and sense of impending doom in a 90-minute adaptation ideally suited to high school groups but engaging for an adult audience as well. (However, the inclusion of an Orwell-like writer character at the story’s beginning and end feels a bit patronizing. Even if they haven’t read the book, teens are smart enough to see Animal Farm for the allegory it is.)
Director Gordon keeps the pacing sharp and quick, so that when things abruptly go sour, we as spectators are almost taken aback (despite effective foreshadowing), forced to ask ourselves if such a society could ever exist and thrive. The production values are stellar: Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set, J.R. Lederle’s lighting, and Izumi Inaba’s costumes are very simply done with small and thoughtful touches such as a desk with reins, feed scattered on the floor, animal headdresses that still allow for actors’ expressions and movement, and parallels between the barn and an office-farmhouse (the latter conveys a very “workers of the world, unite!” feel). As well as his frightening Napoleon, Montgomery’s movement direction of the cast is inspired, and perhaps best carried out by Lucy Carapetyan’s Maggie the hen: vocal and physical mannerisms that distinguish each animal without going over the top. Other strong performances include Will Allan’s suspicious but insightful donkey Benjamin, Jasmine Bracey’s dual role of idealistic revolution instigator Old Major and confused but loyal cow Julia, and Matt Kahler’s Boxer, a work horse in the truest sense, who believes in the original intentions of Animal Farm up to the moment of his heartbreaking downfall.
Every generation hopes that the next will be the one to save our world. As an adult, I looked at the teenagers in the audience of Animal Farm as they watched the play. fervently hoping that some were snickering for each other’s benefit (I’m not old enough to forget what being young and self-conscious is like), but in actuality were observing and absorbing the story’s themes that inaction can lead to destruction. I thought of a recent photo of my youngest cousin at his first day of preschool, smiling brightly next to the school’s front door, adorned with a “No Guns” decal. I hoped that someone – maybe a young person watching Animal Farm that very day – can take our society to a place where no such signs are necessary.
Animal Farm continues through November 16th at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map). Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). For school-group tickets, contact Education and Community Programs Coordinator Lauren Sivak at 312-654-5643. More at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Will Allan (Man, Benjamin), Jasmine Bracey (Old Major, Julia), Lucy Carapetyan (Maggie), Amelia Hefferon (Squealer), Matt Kahler (Boxer), Mildred Marie Langford (Muriel, Cows, Esther), Blake Montgomery (Napoleon), Dana Murphy (Mollie, Dog), Lance Newton (Moses, Pinkeye), Sean Parris (Snowball, Dog), Understudies: Celeste M. Cooper (Old Major, Julia), Jay W. Cullen (Snowball, Moses, Pinkeye), Cooper Forsman (Man, Benjamin), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Squealer, Muriel, Mollie, Maggie), Dominique Worsley (Napoleon, Boxer)
behind the scenes
Hallie Gordon (director), Brian Sidney Bembridge (scenic design), Izumi Inaba (costume design), J.R. Lederle (lighting design), Rick Sims (sound design, original composition), Blake Montgomery (movement director), Erica Daniels (casting director), Cassie Calderone (stage manager), Cooper Forsman (movement assistant), Emily Hitmar (stage management apprentice), Gabrielle Brubaker (wardrobe), Karen Thompson (light board operator), Vanessa Rundle (running crew); adaption team: Steve Pickering (adaptor), Alice Austen (co-adaptor), Fred Baxter, Tom Kyzivat (pre-pro conceptual art), Michael Brosilow (photos)