National Players’ Animal Farm delivers creative political commentary

Thursday night's performance at Vogel Hall used imaginative set design to drive George Orwell's allegorical story.

By - Feb 23rd, 2013 11:49 am

“The Battle of the Cow Shed,” from National Players’ “Animal Farm.” Photo courtesy of the company’s website.

What I learned from National Players’ production of Animal Farm, performed at Marcus Center Vogel Hall Thursday night: We’ve all been duped! Corruption is everywhere! Democracy is a lie!

Aside from the mocking commentary on government, there was a harmonica, bucket drumming, and a cappella harmony. The 90-minute performance intertwined Animal Farm’s serious themes on dystopic modern society with the traveling troupe’s super creative juices, with impressive results.

You know the story: The animals at Manor Farm revolt against their piggish (nudge nudge) owner, “Jones.” Man is overthrown and the animals attempt to revolutionize the farm. They draw and adopt resolutions under the simple guideline “four legs good, two legs bad.”

Straight spoken narrative from the actors advanced some of the plot of George Orwell’s famous novella. This helped speed things along; director Jason King Jones did a lovely job of creating fluidity.

Entertaining surprises abound. Right out of the gate, the play burst with imagination. Cast member Zach Bryant played guitar, Ian Kramer jammed on harmonica, and metal milk-cans became percussion in folksy, “down on the farm” musical numbers. Major (Dan Hasty) passed along a prophetic dream about an animal uprising. He taught them “Beasts of England,” which becomes the revolution’s anthem.

Predictably, the animal utopia unravels quickly. The pigs — as the smartest creatures, they’re in charge — begin to disagree on new resolutions. Snowball (Matt Lytle) believes building a windmill takes priority, to bring electricity to the farm. Napoleon (Justin Weaks) believes it’s important to educate every animal to read. Napoleon is overruled and animosity fractures the system.

The effectively sparse set involves only giant spools, which the actors drag about to create the illusion of hard labor. A white screen behind the cast served as a vehicle for almost anything. Actors were lit behind it at times, to create shadow images. We see the outline of their cruel owner, cracking a whip and chugging a bottle of booze. We see Snowball expelled from the group in a flash of his running silhouette. We see executions of “guilty” parties; they drop one by one after Napoleon takes totalitarian control.

The genius of this staging also comes from an unlikely tool: an old slide projector. The animals would wheel it out, at times referencing their original commandments as things start to seem odd. It serves as a solitary, foreboding light source during tense moments. It created primitive yet ingenious scenery, particularly during The Battle of Cow Shed, when Jones comes back to fight the animals. A rudimentary black and white image of hills and cows and man and action-star bursts tells us everything; simply shaking the projector creates a sense of ruckus.

The cast exuded the dread and misery that should flow through Orwell’s Animal Farm (Ian Wooldridge adapted it for the stage). Napoleon slowly becomes the most awful, misleading ruler ever, and Weaks did a marvelous job of tracking his descent.

Squealor, Napoleon’s trusted partner in crime, came through every so often to remind the disgruntled animals that actually, everything is hunky-dory. Ian Kramer played the role perfectly, citing nonsense statistics and giving “encouraging” pep talks in that obviously-false-but-yeah-you’re-probably-right idiom.

You know how I know this Animal Farm was effective? When it was over, I thought “I’m moving to Canada.”

The National Players, based in the Olney Theater Center, Montgomery County, Maryland, also staged Romeo and Juliet at the Marcus Center, on Friday.

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Theater

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