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Animal Farm — Luna Theater

animal farm -- interiorCompact though “Animal Farm” is, George Orwell’s cautionary tale about totalitarianism, the imposing of rigid doctrine or ideology over physical and mental independence, the worminess of populist leadership, and the use of either a scapegoat or some vision of common good to advance a questionable cause resonates throughout time.

No matter that “Animal Farm” was written in 1945, a perfect year for assessing and lambasting the worst humanity can muster whether the target is Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. My teenage reading of it — and Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — is the one the reasons I could never join my ’60s brethren in revolutionary fervor, despise the aftermath of the French Revolution, and see evil in interest groups whether gun enthusiasts or environmental activists today. They all place extremes above the rational middle, justify means as a route to utopian or dystopian ends, and seek power over everything instead of working sensibly to fix what needs tweaking and leave the rest alone. (Foie gras, politicians, is none of your business ever!) The true extremes, Communism and Fascism are equally hateful, and not worth distinguishing one from the other, because they both subjugate, propagandize, corrupt, and coerce in ways that polarize or oppress. Where is George Washington or Winston Churchill when we need him?

Though Orwell’s specific target was Communism, “Animal Farm” exposes all movements that would inculcate inflexibility, an unswerving mind set, politically approved behavior, and unyielding orthodoxy that puts dictatorial, life-and-death power over any vaunted self-righteous committee at the expense of the general populace.

Orwell was clever. He never named any group or regime on which he was focusing. And he cast his protestors, revolutionaries, and eventual dictators and victims as barnyard animals as opposed to humans. By showing the progression of tyranny from somewhat justifiable complaint and action to absolutism, sloganeering, rule bending, cronyism, power mongering, separating into privileged friend and killable foe, and full autocratic despotism.

Orwell is straightforward and systematic is his symbolic approach. Ian Wooldridge retains this direct approach in the adaptation of “Animal Farm” used by Gregory Scott Campbell is his telling production at Luna Theater.

Campbell’s production is highly stylized. The characters retain their animal traits while becoming rulers or expendable proles in Orwell’s neat satire about a fictional uprising by barnyard stock against human farmers in rural England. Pigs wallow and distort their mouths when they speak. Horses, cows, and donkeys retain their physicality, walking with an equine or bovine gait and moving their heads in recognizable nods. Katherine Perry is especially effective as Boxer, an aware but not too politically challenging workhorse who goes along with the regime established by — what else? — a pig, Napoleon, mildly questioning changes in the dictator’s original manifesto while concluding Napoleon knows what he’s doing and should be trusted and obeyed. Michelle Pauls is diabolically entertaining as Squealer, Napoleon’s snidely smarmy lieutenant who barely hides his contempt for and cynicism towards the other animals as he announces Napoleon’s latest decrees or self-serving changes to the “Animal Commandments.”

Campbell has these commandments enumerated on a blackboard upstage left, and we, like Boxer and others, cringe as we see Pauls’s Squealer approach the board, almost surreptitiously, to modify past maxims in bright pink chalk. Squealer’s actions are how learn “All animals are equal” has been revised to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” always the way of the undemocratic, non-republican martinet, and especially the Stalinists and Maoists who pretend to goodness as they practice their treachery to those they cynically call “comrade.”

Though stylization is rampant and self-consciously showy, it never gets in the way of all Orwell, through Wooldridge, is trying to say. The grimy faces, the shabby clothes, and stomping hooves do not add anything of significance to “Animal Farm,” but they don’t overstate or take away from what Orwell had to say. That comes through poignantly, especially in the characters of Squealer and Boxer.

So much happens in “Animal Farm” to show Orwell’s intellect and perspicacity, and Campbell brings every bit of it to the stage. Even the most ardent Communist would have to question how his or her ideology really affects the masses while encountering Orwell’s observations. Even if only for an unusual moment. My one cavil, with Orwell, and not with Campbell, is that Mr. Jones, the farmer from whom Napoleon and his troops wrest their territory, is an owner who doesn’t exactly mistreat his stock but makes the more philosophical among them, such as Old Major, what is would be like to have autonomy and distribute work, food, and other rewards more equitably. In this way, Mr. Jones represents the czar while Old Major is a social theorist and Napoleon is Lenin turned to Stalin. The choice then comes between two dictators rather than a real contrast of freedom and self-determination over tyranny (as Lewis does so well in “It Can’t Happen Here” and in parts of “Dodsworth”).

No point in trying to rewrite Orwell. What he accomplished is plain and laudable enough.

“Animal Farm” is brilliant at showing the historical evolution from discontent to revolution and from revolution to dictatorship. He doesn’t miss a step or a tactic in relating his ominous fable.

Dissent begins with the discontent of an aging hog, Old Major. He has been on the Jones farm for his entire, soon-to-end life, and he is critical, from his perspective, of the way Mr. Jones seems to favor some animals over others — feeding some beasts more, working others less, making sure that all who can labor do their share and more. Old Major would like to reorganize the Jones farm. He thinks the animals who, after all, do all of the real work should decide on their own about rations, work hours, and other matters. He even resents it that Jones lived in a comfortable, sheltering dwelling, sits on cushioned chairs, eats off a table, and enjoys luxuries such as alcohol to leaven his days.

Old Major makes the case it’s time for the Jones farm to become more democratic. He foments a rebellion, one led by the pigs, Napoleon and Squealor but won by the persevering heroic efforts of another pig, Snowball, and good solid soldiers like the unassuming Boxer.

Once the Jones farm is won, the question that plagues every successful revolutionary comes to the fore — How do we govern in accordance with the principles we espoused before we found ourselves victorious?

Leadership and policy are needed. Snowball, as the bravest and most effective in the battle against Mr. Jones, is the natural choice, and he begins to govern with Napoleon as second in command.

The subordinate position doesn’t suit Napoleon. He begins to jockey for power. Snowball is too beloved to confront baldly, so Napoleon, the better politician, waits for his moment.

It occurs when one of Snowball’s plans can be used to divide the sentiments of the animals, who are all equal and all have a vote in all that affects the farm. Snowball wants to build a windmill to create more power to make the farm more efficient. He realizes the windmill will take great effort to build and engineer correctly. He also knows the cost of it will mean some sacrifice from those vested in the farm.

Napoleon, caring more about control than the windmill, makes Snowball’s construction plan a polarizing issue. Snowball doesn’t rally supporters. He conceptualizes the needs for the farm and present them as logical next steps. He will accept if the other animals are not in league with him and abide, democratically by majority rule, thus establishing the democratic socialism Orwell favored.

Napoleon does the opposite. He not only objects to the windmill but finds reasons to deem it dangerous and retrograde to the tenets of the revolution. He uses emotion more than reason, employs with-us or against-us as an abiding standard, and makes the windmill campaign more than just a yes-or-no vote but a vote of confidence that would not only diminish Snowball but purge him from power.

NealBoxOrwell has shown that animal nature is no better than human nature. Well, anthropomorphic animal nature, anyhow. Napoleon did not start the windmill campaign to pose a logical alternative or state a principal. He did it to create factions. Trotskyite or Stalinist, you can’t be both or accept a little of one philosophy and a little of another. One must be absolute and orthodox in his or her beliefs. If one is not, then that one is an enemy, a dangerous dissenters whose tongue and influence must be stopped.

Upon winning majority support for scuttling the windmill, Napoleon acts quickly to get rid of Snowball and to intimidate, if not harm, all of those who sided with him or have a sentimental appreciation of his war achievements and decency in governing.

Whim and chaos can now be afoot. Napoleon can set or alter commandments as he pleases. Snowball has been driven off the Jones property. His most avid or loyal adherents have been banished or slaughtered. The anthemic rallying cry associated with Snowball, “Beasts of England” is replaced by a new phrase, crafted by one of Napoleon’s sycophants, Minimus. In one bit of fancy, Moses, a pragmatic bird whose ability to fly spares him Napoleon’s control, talks of a Sugarcandy Mountain where animals retreat after years of labor and other drudgery.

One of the first thing Napoleon does, after a decent interval, is plan the windmill Snowball proposed. He rationalizes his change of heart based on circumstances that came to his attention when he assumed full leadership. He also proposes hiring human labor and use a form of slave labor to build his mill. All of a sudden, animals are forced to do tasks — for the good of the group, of course — that are involuntarily or crippling to their health and spirit. They don’t do what Napoleon says, they don’t eat. All of a sudden, food is rationed in proportion to productivity and now equality. Some are denied more than meager subsistence as punishment, even if the reason they are less useful is their age or illness.

While conditions for most animals decline, Napoleon and Squealer move into Mr. Jones’s house, eat at his table, and sleep on his bed, albeit without sheets because Napoleon has revised the commandment that says animals will not sleep on beds to one that states animals will not sleep on beds with sheets.

All slowly and slimily militates towards dictatorship with Pauls’s Squealer gleefully announcing each new restriction on the governed and each new privilege for the governing. Eventually, Napoleon is as much a despot, and less redeemable, than the French emperor after whom he’s named. He is nothing less than a bullying privileged scourge whose rare benevolent design is subordinated by his need for power, total obedience, conformity, and control. If Old Major or Snowball had an ideal for Animal Farm, it’s gone and forgotten. Orwell’s picture of this dystopian society is bleak and seemingly without recourse.

“Animal Farm,” even when presented as a stylized comedy, makes you think, and Campbell’s production is best at letting the fodder for cogitation come through it was that genuinely fire up your perceptions and reactions to the history of humankinds being represented so entertainingly on the Luna Theater stage.

Peter Andrew Danzig assisted Campbell by choreographing the distinctive movements of the animals. The best part of his work is how unobtrusive it was. Danzig’s work gave Campbell’s production some visual variety while never getting in the way of Orwell’s warning by example.

Katherine Perry’s slow, clear readings, with a touch of Milne’s (or Disney’s) Eeyore is her voice, makes her Boxer stand out even more than Pauls’s Squealer or Tori Mittelman’s smug, self-satisfied, unapologetic Napoleon. Perry makes you care about Boxer as she tries to understand all that happens around him while following through obligingly to any order, assignment, or task. Boxer has the intellect to question Napoleon’s dicta, and their motives, but she is too good a soldier, too loyal a comrade, to see ill in them or take action against them. Boxer, unfortunately, sees Napoleon’s conception of loyalty when he is injured defending the windmill and is sent to an alleged hospital for treatment.

Even Perry’s movements make earns her special kudos among a good cast. Her walk and pace as Boxer match the slow but sure way Perry’s Boxer speaks. Perry makes you attentive and sympathetic to her characters in ways none of the others do. She endows Boxer with consistency and dimension that allows the character to transcend the role he plays on Napoleon’s farm and Orwell’s page to affect us and let us see the human, or animate, side of what is happening.

Michelle Pauls is delightfully despicable as Squealer. She exudes pride at being the messenger or executor of Napoleon’s latest attempt at intimidation and stranglehold. You can see how much she likes being one of the privileged who live in the Jones house, enjoy the best of the food, and can exact pain on animals that displease or disobey her.

There’s a joyful snideness, a perpetual crooked smile, that Pauls gives her character. She’s the barnyard equivalent of the handsome scientist, politician, or business executive who commits the most nefarious atrocities in the movies. Her Squealer likes power even more than Napoleon and doesn’t mind using muscle to wield it.

Tori Mittelman is much more subtle in her portrayal of Napoleon. She takes on the polished tone of the dictator who can speak beautifully and soothingly while plotting to restrict freedom more and turn banalities or disagreements into crimes.

Mittelman is a pig with hauteur. She is visibly and vocally more refined than Pauls’s Squealer and presents her decrees in a more matter-of-fact, more paternal way. Mittelman’s Napoleon is especially effective when lying to rationalize her stances, create an urgency that needs support, or in designating heroes and villains. You hear the way she turns the innocent or innocuous into a horror, a talent and tactic that unfortunately reminds you of about all of our current political class. (Who to vote for in 2016? Let’s see. None who have presented themselves so far will do. Tripemeisters and flimflammers everyone. Yes, the sainted Bernie along with the rest of the garbage. Maybe Churchill would like a posthumous vote. He was half American! Or George Orwell.)

Sarah Knittel does a wonderful job of Snowball, conveying the character’s bravery and intention, though a leader with some dictatorial power, to do the right, useful, and fair. She is also effective as Benjamin, the literate donkey that takes a sullen view of life’s prospects no matter who’s in charge, Kelly McCaughan makes an impression as Clover, who catches on to every card Napoleon plays but is content enough, and somehow maternal enough towards Boxer, to make any overt move to create a counter-rebellion. Isabelle Fehlandt doesn’t get a lot of chance to show her acting mettle, but she gives a wise, wily, and sinister cast to Moses, the gossipy bird, and has conviction as Minimus, crafter of the songs and slogans that laud Napoleon’s regime.

Dirk Durossette’s set looks minimalistic but is complex as he measured stalls for the cows and horses, a shed for the pigs, the house for Napoleon and Squealer, and even a neat perch for Moses. Milllie Hiibel’s main job seems to have been finding rags that would be about the shades of animal hides and draping the characters accordingly. She did it well even though you wouldn’t call any of the costumes lovely.

“Animal Farm” runs through Saturday, November 7, at Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street (8th and Kater Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $20 and can be obtained by visiting www.lunatheater.org.

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