If you're of a certain age, you may remember when George Orwell's short satiric work Animal Farm was a staple on most required high school reading lists. An inventive and intense version of English author Orwell's 1945 fable, adapted by Nelson Bond, is now playing at the Madison Street Theatre, formerly known for five decades as "Village Players."
This inaugural production of the newly renamed and reformulated theater company is being performed in the smaller storefront "black box" space, just east of the main stage where Circle Theatre's The Women is currently playing.
A talented ensemble of six actors transform themselves into barnyard characters and bring the allegorical political story to life. Each of the cast members shows great energy and conviction: Sarah Camargo, Michael Gonzalez, P.J. Gonzalez, Lorrisa Julianus, Adam Krause, and Joseph Mennella.
The 90-minute production with one intermission is performed "readers' theater" style, with the cast holding beautiful, individualized leather-bound scripts. Readers' theater, a type of dramatic presentation in which the actors generally do not memorize their lines but rather read them, uses vocal expression and limited action — almost like an old-time radio play. But this company seems mostly "off book" (i.e. knowing their dialogue by heart), often acting out episodes and moving about in the intimate performance space with great alacrity.
I've seen two other productions of this material. One version had the cast in furry fat suits, the other utilized prosthetic, stilt-like limbs a la The Lion King. The Madison Street Theatre troupe, however, is "dressed to the nines," as they used to say, in black tie and evening gown attire. If one encountered an unidentified publicity photo from this production, it might be inferred that the shot was from some Noel Coward comedy of manners. The performers all look so classy and refined, completely unlike the barnyard animals they portray.
The set in this intimate performance space is an elegant drawing room that has been created by Kellie Halsted with furnishings from Divine Consign on Oak Park Avenue. A number of stunning art works hanging on the walls were painted by multitalented cast member Julianus.
There is no attempt, either in program footnotes or through the narration, to establish this tale as an allegorical spin on the rise and fall of Communism, as has often been taught and debated. Though we're nearly a century removed from the Russian Revolution, this simple yet intensely powerful production, solidly directed by Craig J. Engel, does not require such background information or historical perspective to "get" its thrust.
One might question why this 63-year-old story is still being performed. But it's not necessary to know which specific Soviet political figures the animals represent. As Orwell's plot unfolds, we realize the political situations depicted might now be found anywhere from North Korea to Zimbabwe.
On the surface the fable initially seems like a whimsical fairy tale. But this extended metaphor is far more sinister.
Orwell, an English author with an intense belief in democratic socialism, took the complicated, wide swathe of early 20th-century history (the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Stalinist period in Russia) and retold it in simple, understandable form.
A group of intelligent Manor Farm animals rebel, overthrow their human owner, and set up their own self-sustained farm. They begin to run their new regime on egalitarian lines, effectively taking charge of their own destinies and establishing their own seemingly perfect society. In theory, all animals will be taken care of and will live dignified, fulfilling lives.
The pigs assume control under the principles of "Animalism," which ensure a better life free from service to humans by following commandments, such as "Four legs good, two legs bad" and "All animals are equal."
But they are quickly corrupted by power, declare themselves the smartest beasts in the barnyard and establish a new tyranny under opportunist Napoleon and scheming Squealer. They act just like the hated human beings who had tyrannized the animals previously. They exploit and manipulate with empty promises. These treacherous pigs even rewrite history and seize community resources for their own private gain, while those with lesser cognitive abilities dutifully accept their lot as virtual slaves. Pigs formulate the rules, make the decisions and have most of the authority. Soon the mission statements are revised: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
It's not long before the new rules that promised and supposedly ensured freedom become chains that bind the animals once again.
Though there are many laugh-out-loud moments, the show is touching, both intellectually and emotionally. It's disturbing to witness the exploitation by manipulative opportunists employing empty promises. Of course, since Animal Farm was initially published, we have become so jaded that few of us trust politicians any more.
The bossy boar Napoleon, a Joseph Stalin figure, is especially well portrayed by Julianus.
Scheming Squealer is expressively and impressively played by 10-year-old P.J. Gonzalez, a student at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. This young actor will surely be seen again. His father, Michael Gonzalez, plays Boxer, a work horse. (After the intermission, I realized I was seated directly behind P.J.'s excited mom and younger brother. It was almost as much fun watching them as it was the play.)
Animal Farm chillingly illustrates how politicians — be they communist or captalist — may start off with good intentions but end up corrupted by power. This work is not so much a criticism of the elements and excesses of Communism as it is of greed and gullibility.
Opening night during the intermission, the entire cast remained on stage, chatting and sharing refreshments with the audience. I was impressed they could so easily "break character" and then jump back into their roles as soon as we took our seats again.
It's exciting to see that Madison Street Theatre has mounted a tightly directed, energetic show for their inaugural production. We look forward to their continued successful theatrical efforts.