This works great on the page, but I wondered how it would translate to the stage. A few years before I hooked up with the Shotgun Players, they had produced Jon Tracy's adaptation of "Animal Farm" called The Farm, but I missed it. As luck would have it, the opening show of TheatreFIRST's current season is a revived and updated rendition of The Farm.
The PlayThe script stays pretty close to the story thread of the book, at least as I recall it. The animals, tired of working for the farmer only to end up slaughtered, rise up and drive out the farmer, taking over the running of the farm for themselves. They set up an egalitarian collectivist structure with a set of seven precepts or commandments, which they paint on the wall for all to see (even those who can't read). The most important and memorable of these is the dictate that "All animals are equal," along with "Four legs good; two legs bad."
As the story progresses and the ideals of the revolutionary animals meets up with the reality of running a farm, behavior seems to diverge from the commandments of Animalism, but it turns out that the commandments themselves have been altered, too. And no one can quite recall when or how that happened, but somehow there are now conditions and modifiers on the very straightforward original laws.
The longer we go, the clearer it becomes that the pigs are running the farm for their benefit, much as the humans had, even to the point that they are making deals with the neighboring human farms. And by the end of the story, the pigs have become essentially indistinguishable from the humans, and have subjugated all the other animals. Indeed, some animals are more equal than others.
The ProductionOn a rather dark, stark stage with some nondescript structure to suggest fencing or pens, the animals arrive. Rather than creating elaborate costumes, each type of animal has a sort of uniform suggesting their species. The horses, for example, wear tan work coveralls and boots. The sheep have woolly sweaters, and so on. What I found particularly effective was the small behaviors that each animal affected, perhaps most notably Clover the horse (Anna Joham), who had a distinctive way of tossing her head and pawing the ground that was quite equine. The designers (particularly costume designer Miyuki Bierlein) and co-directors (Michael Torres and Elena Wright) have done a terrific job of making the visuals subtle, yet evocative. That's good, because the story is a pretty blunt instrument, and trying to accurately present animals or a farm would probably distract from the point of the play.
Adapter Jon Tracy has taken the ordinary prose of Orwell's story and converted it into something more like a poem, with snappy little rhymes and rhythms that keep it flowing and show a cleverness without overwhelming the flow of the story. It's only occasionally that the language draws attention to itself, but when it does it's generally to good effect. Similarly, the insertion of little songs, chants, and raps flow pretty seamlessly. Much as the pigs' conniving to distort the messages of Animalism to their own ends is done in such as way that the other animals either don't notice or are powerless to oppose it, Tracy's adaptations of the story fit so neatly that one almost doesn't notice that some dialogue has morphed into rhyme until it goes somewhere else, and you find yourself thinking "well, that was neat!"
There are other good touches, such as the use of the revolutionary hog, Old Major (Anthony Frederick Aranda). His imposing figure introduces the animals to the idea of rising up, but his early demise removes him from the immediate action, though he remains an inspiration and a touchpoint (either his memory or his physical skull). The production handles that by having Old Major linger in the background, beating a drum off and on, maintaining his presence throughout. And every time the wise donkey, Benjamin (Dean Koya), tries to point out that the pigs are violating the precepts of Animalism, someone points out that he is an ass.
The Bottom LineI was really impressed with this production. The acting ensemble is very strong. I haven't called out many of the individuals, largely because they function so well as a collective. It's not that there aren't good performances, but more that no one really dominate the story or the audience's attention. The ringleader of the pigs, Napolean (Tierra Allen) is very good, but not in a way that outshines the rest of the pigs or the other animals, and indeed, that's kind of the message of the story.
TheatreFIRST has done a good job of creating a balanced, diverse cast and crew, in keeping with their mission. I have a little qualm about whether "The Farm" really fits their stated goal of "amplifying marginalized stories," given how well-known the source material is. And really, critiques of communism and socialism are hardly marginalized in Berkeley! That said, it is definitely a fresh, lively take on the story, and the creativity of both the adaptation and the staging are clear.
This is a show that deserves to be seen, not so much because people need to see "Animal Farm" on stage, but more because it shows how powerfully a creative group can take a familiar story and turn it into something fresh and relevant without having to produce a giant, flashy spectacle. Indeed, it's refreshing to see the story kind of stripped down to its essence, with the effort placed on character and nuance instead of realism and flash.
And for once, I saw a show early enough in its run that I can recommend that you go to see it. The show runs through November 11, and ticket prices are very reasonable. It's well worth a trip to the Live Oak Theater to see this one.