Animal Farm: a bitter theatrical feast 16 March 2018
by Drew Rowsome -
Before eagerly setting out to Soulpepper's Animal Farm, we sat down to a delicious home-cooked dinner. As is our habit at that time of day, we switched back and forth between the national and local news programs, and CNN. And as is sadly also usual, the news was horrific, not just in content but also in the bold greed, incompetence, disregard for humanity or the world, mud-slinging, and naked ambition for naked ambitions sake, of our purported leaders. It was enough to curdle even the most TLC-laden culinary creation.
Animal Farm is a familiar text and was originally subtitled "A Fairy Tale" by the author George Orwell. Over the years it has also been labelled "satire" and "allegory." Today it feels like reality. The adaption by Anthony MacMahon and directed by Ravi Jain (Prince Hamlet, Salt-Water Moon, Gimme Shelter) present the text as a Brechtian clown show, using humour and slapstick to amplify the satire. And the horror. The costumes (Ken MaacKenzie) and make-up (Jacqueline Robertson Cull) are classic clown, and like pure clowning, the satire is razor sharp and merciless. They also manage an extraordinary melding of the rustic, the metaphorical and suggestion.
The first half is played in a series of deliberate tableaus that emphasize the words and is mesmerizing if long. The second half deviates from Orwell's text and inserts contemporary references so bluntly that it is occasionally jarring, disrupting the allegorical timeless feel. And the use of television as a metaphor seems to be an attempt to insert action and easy laughs. But it also allows for a comic set piece involving chickens that allows the clowning to transcend into gutbusting hilarity. That is the total effect of this Animal Farm, it is very funny and very, pointedly, disturbing. If it had had the courage to remove the easy targets, it would have been devastating.
The ensemble - even buried under prosthetics, greasepaint and distorting amplification - is dazzling, able to hold attention during static speeches and awkward scene changes. Animal mannerisms are clearly etched but not Cats-distracting, with Michaela Washburn turning our civic mascot into a uproarious cameo. She has fierce competition from Raquel Duffy (The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?) as the flighty Mercy who finds her backbone, and Jennifer Villaverde whose Old Major is magnetic and whose Poophead is foully delightful. Oliver Dennis is the slow-witted and stoic heart of the tale and makes the final reveal, though everyone knows it is coming, unbearably heartbreaking.
The audience is invited into Animal Farm by Guillermo Verdecchia (Flashing Lights) the sardonic voice of reason, who is a perfect counterpoint to the devious bluster and mansplaining of Rick Roberts (Prince Hamlet, An Enemy of the People). Roberts somehow avoids the easy villainy of the cartoon political figures he unavoidably resembles, particularly the newsgrabbing twosome who already personify pigs both figuratively and physically. Leah Cherniak has a poetic death scene that is stylistically flawless and tragicomic, while Miriam Fernandes (Prince Hamlet) romps with contagious malice. Sarah Wilson and Sugith Varughese (Little Pretty and the Exceptional) stand out in multiple small yet telling roles, but Paolo Santalucia (The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?, Mustard, The Taming of the Shrew) incarnates a meek sheep, a studly BDSM fantasy enforcer, a dithering piglet and even a champagne-swilling human, imbuing each with a singular lifeforce.
Being opening night, the audience exited into a lobby laden with trays of edibles - thankfully vegetarian, chicken tenders or anything with bacon would have traumatized further - but few seemed to have any appetite. Animal Farm, despite of, or perhaps because of, the delicate unbalance of comedic satire/entertainment and political satire/polemic, is a gut punch that lingers. We laugh because it is true and so close to current reality, we flinch and our stomachs roil for the same reason. The ending of Animal Farm is abrupt and a nihilistic version of a crowd-pleasing rousing climax. It isn't comfortable, but it is haunting and a bittersweet petit four after a theatrical feast.
Animal Farm continues until Sat, April 07 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery District. soulpepper.ca