British writer George Orwell is best known for his dystopian novel 1984, first published in 1949. Big Brother made Orwell famous. Four years earlier he published the allegorical novella Animal Farm in which animals rebel against their mean farmer and set up their own society. According to Orwell, his story reflected events leading up to the Russian Revolution and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.
It is easy to see that played out in A Noise Within’s stellar production currently in Pasadena. This adaptation is by British director Peter Hall and features music by Richard Peaslee and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. Their musical version ironically was first staged in 1984 but has rarely been seen since. ANW’s Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has masterfully staged it with a talented and truly ensemble cast of actors. Her vision of the piece is unerringly right on the mark. The show is part Story Theatre, part the musical Bertolt Brecht never got around to writing, and totally absorbing.
Farmer Jones (Bert Emmett) is more of a drunk than a farmer, often neglecting the animals when he’s not abusing them. The aged boar Old Major (Geoff Elliott) provides the inspiration for the animals to revolt and take over the farm for themselves. The pigs, led by idealistic Snowball (Stanley Andrew Jackson) and the fiery Napoleon (Rafael Goldstein) and Squealer (Trisha Miller), soon set up the Seven Commandments of Animalism (read Communism). They welcome all animals, farm and free, to join them. Their motto–”Four legs good, two legs bad.”
Their system works for a while and the farm prospers under the animals and they all share in the work and the rewards. But slowly Napoleon starts to live up to his despotic tyrant’s namesake, and with the help of Squealer, soon manages to eliminate Snowball. The commandments begin to be altered. “All animals are equal” suddenly has “but some are more equal than others” tacked on to it. The pigs are suddenly making deals with humans for their crops, leaving their hard-working compatriots starving again. Is another revolution brewing or will the humans return in force?
Most of the cast of eleven—also including Jeremy Rabb, Deborah Strang, Cassandra Marie Murphy, Nicole Javier, Philicia Saunders and Sedale Threatt Jr.–play several roles, all effortlessly. The production is a feast for the eyes—Angela Balogh Calin’s barn setting and her varied costumes, Ken Booth’s painterly lighting design, the musical direction of Rod Bagheri leading the three-piece on-stage band, and most especially Tony Valdes’s wig and make-up design and Dillon Nelson’s mask design. Kenneth R. Merckx Jr.’s fight choreography really makes The Battle of the Cowshed memorable. You probably won’t leave the theatre humming any of the tunes, but you will still be thinking about the ideas Animal Farm harvests. Bravo to all involved, be they on four feet or two.