Chicago Theatre Review
Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad
Animal Farm – Steppenwolf for Young Audiences
In this scintillating, impossible to forget world premier by Althos Low (the pen name for Chicago’s adaptation development group, Shangai Low Theatricals), George Orwell’s 1945 allegory about the Russian Bolshevik Revolution vividly comes to life for young audiences. Playgoers, however, needn’t be familiar with Russian history, Stalin, Trotsky or any other element from this time period to understand and appreciate the growing horror depicted in this production. Nor is it necessary for audiences to have read Orwell’s dystopian novel beforehand in order to grasp the significance of such circumstances for the individual. This production is that perfect.
Artistic and Educational Director Hallie Gordon has brilliantly staged and driven her production to excellence. She achieves what few directors manage by both staying quite faithful to the original source while putting a fresh, new take on this classic. The result is that the story feels as if it had been written today. Performed alley style upon Brian Sidney Bembridge’s girder-and-timber farmyard setting, with the audience seated on either side and all the action up and down the center area, theatergoers find themselves close to the story. His physical setting reflects the animal’s domain, the barn and loft, at one end while the farmer’s house, with its desk, bookshelves and mounted animal heads adorning the walls dominates the other end. Izumi Inaba’s unique costume designs clothe all the animals in army green jumpsuits and combat boots, but add organically-made hoods with a half-masks and elbow-length gloves that end in hooves, appropriate for each creature. The effect steers away from the expected traditional animal costumes providing an anthropomorphic look for each character.
The script, unlike the novel, isn’t set in the rural English countryside. It’s simply on a farm somewhere, anywhere. While Mister Jones is away one evening, Old Major, a prize-winning boar nearing the end of his life, calls a meeting of all his fellow farm animals to verbalize everyone’s hatred and distrust of humans. Able to read and write, like all the pigs, Major posts his Seven Commandments of Animalism which state that all animals are equal, that those walking on two legs (unless they have wings) are bad, while those who walk upon four legs are good. The document, which is painted on the barn wall for all to see, goes on to say that no animal shall wear clothes, sleep in a bed, drink alcohol or kill another animal. He teaches the animals a motivational song which becomes their anthem. When Major dies, he’s buried with dignity and his skull is later hung in honor near the Commandments.
First Snowball takes over the command, teaching the other animals how to read and write. Under his authority the farm continues to run smoothly. With all the animals pitching in to work everyone has enough to eat. Soon, however, Napoleon, a pig with big ambitions, begins disagreeing with Snowball’s methods and directs the dogs to chase him off the farm. Before the other animals can comprehend what’s happening, Napoleon becomes their dictator-like leader, the Commandments are mysteriously altered and the pigs, now living like human beings in the farmhouse, are conducting trade with men. The play, despite eliminating some of the book’s minor characters and a few plot elements, remains faithful to a story that conveys how the animals become indistinguishable from the human villains against whom they initially rebelled.
Ms. Gordon’s cast is excellent. Thanks to Blake Montgomery’s movement direction, the actors wisely convey each animal’s essence without ever becoming a caricature. The story’s initially introduced by the talented Will Allan, at first representing author George Orwell and later evolving into one of the older and wiser farm animals, Benjamin the donkey, who continues as both the narrator and a vital internal character. Major and Julia the cow are both played with dignity and grace by Jasmine Bracey. The vain horse, Mollie, is nicely played with arrogance and a touch of nostagia by Dana Murphy. Mildred Langford, always excellent in any role she plays, is Muriel, a smart, caring educator goat serving the more illiterate animals. Maggie the hen represents all the barn fowl; and as played with twitchy flightiness by Lucy Carapetyan, she makes the pain of Napoleon deciding to sell her eggs feel especially personal. Matt Kahler impresses like no other as the hardworking, stouthearted, faithful Boxer the plow horse. His ultimate demise resonates the loudest of all the animals in this production.
All the antagonistic pigs are villainous and played with equal strength. Blake Montgomery’s deep, resonant voice echoes throughout the space as the fierce-looking, self-serving Napoleon. His command of the situation from beginning to end is deep, maniacal and complete. Sean Parris earns the audience’s empathy as Snowball, the dethroned heir to farm. Mr. Parris then returns as a frightening, gun-bearing guard dog. Lance Newton plays both Moses and Pinkeye with aplomb and and Amelia Hefferon makes an excellent brown-nosing yes-man named Squealer.
Steppenwolf’s exciting production of George Orwell’s frightening allegory seems even more contemporary and relevant today. As our lives become increasingly saturated by reports of astounding atrocities, epidemic diseases, new terrorist groups, wars, school shootings, local crime and the emergence of intimidating tyrants heading up new governmental regimes, the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket while everyone simply watches and waits. Today’s news doesn’t seem that far removed from yesterday’s events, the kind that prompted Orwell to write his satirical, cautionary story. In what may be Steppenwolf’s finest production aimed at young audiences, this play is a must-see for theatergoers of all ages.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 15-November 14, with a special additional week of student matinees November 11-14 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company for Young Audiences, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available through Audience Services at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.