George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a dark, cynical parable about the susceptibility of the human race (and the equine race, and the bovine race, and the ovine race) to the easy promises of corrupt but charismatic leaders. This works on the page because you don’t actually need to see the animals. The challenge of translating a dark political parable about farm animals onto the stage is that you’re going to have to have people portraying animals. Despite the purest, most despairing intentions, director Jon Ferguson and his very talented cast onstage at the Southern Theater can’t help having a conspicuous amount of fun.
Animal Farm, a play written by Ian Woolridge and directed by Jon Ferguson. Presented through November 16 at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets ($22) and information, see southerntheater.org.
In many ways, Ferguson’s fanciful brand of physical theater is a perfect fit for this material. Costume designer Lindsey Strange outfits the “animals” in eclectic work duds that collectively suggest what it might look like if civilization were to collapse on a Saturday night and everyone in Uptown had to go back to the land wearing clothes salvaged from Ragstock. Without curly tails or strap-on noses, the actors enact their livestock identities with (more or less) subtle cues—a cock of the head here, a thump of the foot there. As the onstage violence escalates and floppy-eared heads start to roll, several actors are reborn in new guises, indicated by simple costume changes. Young actresses Kiana Adams and Piper Sigel-Bruce, for example, gum the scenery with particular gusto in a scene where they appear as newborn babies.
The execution of the production’s concept is impressively close to flawless. In a show where scene transitions are signaled by coordinated ensemble movement, the cast has to be tightly rehearsed—and it was, even in the first preview performance, without looking tightly rehearsed. The cast members are also, miraculously, without apparent ego, each shining during his or her turn in the spotlight while resisting any temptation to steal one another’s thunder. It’s not a short show, but the momentum doesn’t flag and you certainly won’t be bored.
If, in the end, the effect of the production isn’t quite as chilling as Ferguson and producer John Catron might have hoped—a horrifying transformation at the play’s dramatic denouement had the audience collapsing in giggles—it’s a tremendous achievement, imaginative and entertaining. My friend Nalini delivered her verdict as soon as the lights came up: “That,” she said, “was flippin’ awesome!”
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
|Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler on Jon Ferguson’s You’re My Favorite Kind of Pretty (March 2008).|