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A CurtainUp Review
The Orwell Project: Animal Farm and 1984

Animal Farm
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman


Note: Synapse Productions has gone all out to create an Orwellian aura the minute you enter the outer lobby of the Connelly Theater where their ambitious repertory adaptations of George Orwell's two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm are playing through March 13th and 14th respectively (a one week extension of the previously announced 2/02/04 to 3/07 run). The usual table for picking up tickets is a very tall desk that forces you to look up to the young woman in charge establishing the dynamic of you as insignificant prole turning yourself over to a Big Sister version of Big Brother. To exacerbate the sense of being under surveillance, there's a TV set and don't be surprised if someone suddenly materializes and snaps a polaroid picture of you. These pictures are laid out on a table in the inner lobby where the walls are imprinted with Orwell slogans like "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass as history." To accommodate our schedules and also to bring two points of view to the project, Jenny Sandman went to see Animal Farm and I went to see 1984.
-- Elyse Sommer

Animal Farm Review | 1984 Review
Animal Farm
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others
---George Orwell, Animal Farm

Animal Farm
An animal-human resident of Manor Farm
(Photo: Kimberlee Hewitt )
Political theatre is no new thing these days, but it's a rare show that allows the audience to draw its own political conclusions--especially when it's a musical. Synapse Productions' adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm doesn't belabor the political message or metaphor. Orwell's books have a number of timely messages, among them the ability of language to distort meaning. In both Animal Farm as in 1984, the ruling elite breed a culture of fear in order to allow themselves unlimited bureaucratic freedom.

While Animal Farm was Orwell's response to his disillusionment with Communism, it speaks to any despotic form of government. The animals of Manor Farm overthrow their cruel human master and undertake to run the farm themselves. They form a collective, sharing all the work and all the food. The pigs, smartest of the animals, band together to provide leadership to the other animals. They preach solidarity above all, and defense against their human enemies takes priority above food and freedom. Slowly and subtly the pigs begin changing the rules to give themselves more power and privileges. Soon the rest of the animals are no better than they were under the humans--once again they are starving and near destitute.

Adapted for the stage by famed British director Peter Hall this Animal Farm features music by Richard Peaslee (noted for the RSC production of Marat/Sade) and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell (former artistic director of the National Theatre). The centerpiece of this version is its puppetry by Emily DeCola and Eric Wright. They have mastered a wide range of styles--including hand, stick-and-rod, bunraku and masks--to bring the farm animals to life. A tiny wheeled rat serves as narrator; the enormous horses are half-puppet, half-backpack; the cows travel together on an oxen's yoke and the flock of sheep is really a cart of sheep. The pigs, the most human-like of the animals, are not puppets at all but actors with pig noses and tails. The actors utilize the inventive puppets gracefully but are not obscured or overshadowed by them. Everything is well integrated, making for beautifully stylized actor-puppet movements with the actors becoming their respective animals (as well they should, since they provide the voices of the animals). All are comfortable with the songs as their multiple human and animal roles.

Director David Travis draws on the traditions of vaudeville and satire to flesh out the musical numbers in the show. He wisely allows the story to take center stage The songs and the puppets are there to tell Orwell's story, not the other way around. While the songs are simplistic they are clear and fresh. The small orchestra plays the very simple musical score so that once again, the music doesn't overshadow or obscure the puppets or the story.

The stage is bare which allows the beautiful puppets to be the visual focal point, but there is a very interesting lighted panel that provides a silhouette of the farm. At key points in the story, the perspective shifts, moving focus from one set of outlined farm buildings to another. Shadow outlines of animals and vehicles are occasionally used as well.

It's a beautiful production that does justice to the book. It's clearly an adult show, but would be suitable for any child old enough to understand the book.

Written by George Orwell; adapted for the stage by Peter Hall
Directed by David Travis
Music by Richard Peaslee
Lyrics by Adrian Mitchell
With Ceili Clemens, Connie Hall, Scott Hitz, Francis Kelly, Nelson Lugo, Meg MacCary, Ben Masur, Kelly McAllister, Timothy McCracken, Jenny Mercein, Darius Stone and Aaron Mostkoff Unger
Puppet Designs by Emily DeCola and Eric Wright
Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi
Costume Design by Jenny Mannis
Set Design by Adrian W. Jones
Sound Design by Fitz Patton
Running time: Two hours with one intermission
Synapse Productions at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, (Avenues A/ B )
Through March 14
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on February 12th performance

Clayton Dean Smith as Winston,   Chris Campbell as Julia &   Joseph Culliton as O'Brien
Clayton Dean Smith as Winston, Chris Campbell as Julia & Joseph Culliton as O'Brien
(Photo: Richard Burdon)
Orwell's frightening vision of a world in which everyone has been browbeaten and brainwashed into unthinking obedience to "Big Brother" has become synonymous with dictatorships. While many people came to look upon 1984 as an apocalyptic date, some Orwell watchers have interpreted the title as just Orwell's way of turning around the numbers of the year when he wrote the book. Orwell himself indicated that his gloomy view of the world was in the more distant future and, as Clayton Dean Smith, the Synapse production's the actor who plays the ill-fated Winston (also surnamed Smith) notes in his program biography "1984 was, in fact, a very good year."

With the new millennium already in its fourth year there's certainly plenty of evidence of wars without end, countries that have never known democracy, as well as threats from within and without even in lands where democracy reigns. Thus Alan Lyddiard's adaptation and Ginevra Bull's high tech staging, with its oversized video screens and unnerving sound design, are certainly timely. Bull and Lyddiard and their five member cast present Winston Smith's quiet rebellion and horrific destruction in such harrowing detail that the final part is hard to listen to and watch.

To briefly recap the plot, in case you've forgotten or never read the book: Oceana depicts a psychotic world in which the ruling Party is determined to erase any awareness of the past since it might provide people with a means of understanding the present. Winston Smith, haunted by the shadows of "ancestral memory" starts keeping a surreptitious diary. He also gathers objects from the past from a man named Charrington who also provides him with access to an upstairs bedroom where he and a woman named Julia experience moments of happiness. Their love affair is of course doomed to end in a "re-education-"process by O'Brien of the "Ministry of Love" which extinguishes his and Julia's sense of self and honor once and for all.

Ms. Bull and Mr. Lyddiard have dramatized the book with propulsive energy and the actors interpret their roles vividly. Unfortunately, they are not satisfied to let the eerie, joyless world of the first act speak sufficiently for itself, and avoid letting the torture scenes of the second act become melodramatic. Though probably unintentional, this comes off as catering to the same taste for super-real sadism that for years flooded movie screens with grade B Nazi movies. It's as if the director was seduced by the very violence disseminated through the media she condemns.

While I'm quibbling about the overcooked torture scenes, a note about the director's program notes and the press materials which include random statistics about the insidious signs of eroding freedoms and signs of big brotherism in this country. These are indeed disturbing times and all is not rosy in this country but in this globally troubled century, Orwell would have seen that many of his statements apply to countries where the "Party" dogma is to teach unconditional hate and convince young men and women to blow themselves up in order to kill as many of those they hate as possible. Our corporate and government misdeeds notwithstanding, not all practices spurred by modern technology are harmful (some, in fact, help to prevent crime and exonerate unjustly incarcerated prisoners). While we should be watchful of our freedom, we are not in imminent danger of becoming Oceana. Why else do people from all over the globe continue to migrate to this country?


Adapted by Alan Lyddiard from George Orwell's novel of the same name
Directed by Ginevra Bull
Cast: Clayton Dean Smith (Winston), Chris Campbell (Julia, Joseph Culliton (O'Bryan), Kurt Elftmann (Syme), Evan Thompson (Charrington)
Set Design: Adrian W. Jones
Video Design: Thomas Dunn
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Video: Thomas Dunn
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes plus 10-minute intermission
Synapse Productions at the Connelly Theater , 220 East 4th Street, (Avenues A/ B ) SmartTix 212-868-4444

through 3/13/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 15th performance

At This Theater Cover

Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

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The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century

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