Stage-To-Farm: Animal Farm with First Stage

May. 14, 2017
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first stage animal farm
Animal Farm with First Stage Young Company - Paul Ruffolo

The horses wear cowboy hats and ponytails. The pigs wear pigtails armbands. The dogs wear dog tags and dog collars. Everyone’s in white. There’s a sense of innocence that’s going to be corrupted by exploitation. It’s remarkable how such a vivid atmosphere can be attained with so few artifacts. First Stage Young Company’s staging of Animal Farm might be a class in how to make a deeply immersive show on a budget.

The last time I saw an Animal Farm it was the hugely ambitious Quasimondo show that was staged on an old farm with elaborate set and props. That production had an admirably sense of immersion. First Stage’s realization of Orwell’s classic political allegory takes a completely different approach: totally minimalist.

The set is just a few wooden crates, an umbrella, a watering can and a few rudimentary farm implements. Costuming is all in white with the aforementioned iconic, little accessories. There’s a blending of human and animal characteristics in the costuming that echoes into the performances themselves with occasional flashes of conceptual brilliance.

The rhythm of the farm comes across quite well thanks to very conscientious direction on the part of Matt Daniels. With so little to bring across the reality of the farm, the challenge of building an atmosphere falls quite squarely on the shoulders of the young performers. There would be a tendency to want to over-exaggerate the animalism of the animals. Throw too much animal into the mix and it would feel way too artificial and detract from the message that’s being delivered. Provide too little animalism in the performance and it’ll all feel all too human. There’s a respect for the idle silence and stasis of farm animals in the movements and motions of the farm. After they take over, the animals move around stage in motion suggestive of work using tools without hands and the illusion of animalism is still remarkably effective even though there really isn’t any costuming. The ruling pigs learn to walk around on two feet and suddenly the actors are hobbling around precariously and the characterization still works even though the actors had been walking around on two legs the entire time leading-up to that.

One of the things that keeps the atmosphere of the show so immersive is the variety of different animals and temperaments which fit into each scene. As this is a studio theatre production, the young actors are able to take advantage of an opportunity to deliver quite a lot of unspoken characterization through facial expression alone. It’s fascinating to watch the varying levels of guile in and amongst the cast of characters. On one end, there are Sylvie Arnold and Kayla Salter as a couple of very innocent sheep.  There’s a wide-eyed acceptance of everything as they look around at the bewildering world of the farm. There’s an honesty in that which draws a charisma and charm that the pigs take advantage of. They create the simple slogan, “Four legs good. Two Legs Bad.” The sheep are offered the opportunity to try out the slogan and they briefly move with the energy of cheerleaders. It’s a clever moment that holds a tremendous amount of story in it. The lean, concise adaptation is packed with ingenious, little moments like that. 

On the other end of the guile spectrum are Jake Badovski, Mary Jensik and Sydney Salter as the ruling pigs. Whereas Sylvie Arnold and Kayla Salter are wide-eyed and innocent, the three pigs have a much more sophisticated look about them. They seem remarkably sophisticated politicians contrasted against the sheep, the aggressive animalism of the dogs and the various demeanors of all the rest of the animals. The range in different personalities onstage allows the ruling pigs room to be rather sophisticated in their portrayals of those in power. They could far too easily fall into the realm of black-and-white villainy given the overall run of the plot. To their credit and the wisdom of director Matt Daniels, the production brings an interesting and insightful look at those in power. Since this show I’ve seen a little bit more of the pig in video footage of Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest. As Daniels says in his introduction to the play, we can’t afford to relax, sit back and enjoy Animal Farm. The all-too-real corruption breathing through the allegory continues to bleed through present-day politics.

First Stage Young Company’s production of Animal Farm continues through May 21 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. for ticket reservations and more visit firststage.org. A concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd Express.

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