By Ed Rampell
Still Relevant After All These Years
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s (WGTB) current production of Animal Farm is based on George Orwell’s famed 1945 Novella. Sir Peter Hall’s musical adaptation (with music by Richard Peaslee and lyrics by Adrian Mitchell) premiered at London’s National Theatre in the appropriately Orwellian year of 1984, and it’s being performed at WGTB through October 1st.
“You can’t beat this adaptation,” states the company’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer, “because it’s told by young kids.” Hall’s script had one child narrator. But Geer chose to add a second one, making this production “right for all ages… I think it’s very important for children, as well as elders and mid-aged people to see it… Kids see things adults don’t and connect to this material without putting a hammer [or sickle?] on it,” says Geer, who also directed the musical.
Referring to Orwell’s 72-year-old critique of Stalinism and its relevance today, Geer asks, “That was then. How do you make history help a condition of today?” Or, how do you attract 2017 audiences to fill an amphitheater’s 299-seats? Mark Lewis, who plays the pig Napoleon, insists Animal Farm is “absolutely” still relevant because “You can find these characters – the oily yes-man, the propagandistic mouthpiece or ruthless despot – today anywhere in the world. Several are in the news every day.”
The son of an English colonial administrator, George Orwell was born in India as Eric Blair in 1903. He remains so influential – primarily due to Animal Farm and 1984 – that he’s currently a subject of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Ricks’ Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, which debuted at number 10 on the NY Times Best Seller List for hardcover nonfiction in June of this year.
Why is Orwell, who died in 1950, still relevant? Geer describes Orwell as being “ahead of his time.” Indeed, in these days of so-called “fake news” Animal Farm’s take on propaganda is startlingly prescient and timely. Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language was written in 1946, but he may as well have been describing today’s government spokespersons and pundits. Wrote Orwell over 70-years ago: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” The piquantly – or, well, the “PIG-uantly” – named Squealer embodies the Orwellian concept of “doublespeak.” Although Orwell didn’t use that word in 1984 it synthesizes two words he invented for his novel: “doublethink” and “newspeak” (the official language of Orwell’s dystopian state of Oceania).
For his 1940s novels about totalitarianism Orwell may have had the Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and/or Stalinist truth twisters in mind. But the day after WGTB’s production of Animal Farm opened Americans witnessed a bizarre spectacle of Orwellian doubletalk on an epic level.
Shortly after President Trump tweeted “I’m being investigated for firing the FBI director”, Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, performed full court press on June 18th to persuade people that Trump was not being investigated as the Washington Post had reported. During his interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Sekulow emphatically insisted that his employer was not under investigation. Then (in what may have been a moment of clarity) he stated twice that Trump was being investigated, but then denied again what he had just said on live TV. Finally he confessed that he didn’t know what was in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s mind, and confirmed he was unsure whether or not his client actually was under investigation, anyway.
Although Ellen Geer – whose father, actor Will Geer, was active in leftwing causes throughout the 1930s and 1940s and blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – is aware Orwell was writing about Russia per se in Animal Farm, the director insists, “it’s different now, because it can be any of the ‘isms’ we have do the same thing. Somebody gets into power and manipulates what starts out to be very important, for equality. Then power steps in – it just doesn’t seem to change. It’s a pendulum that keeps swinging, from the right to the left.”
Hall’s script, now a third of a century old, has been somewhat “updated” in the WGTB rendition (which some wag might liken to the swine’s rewriting of Animalism’s hallowed seven commandments). At one point on the outdoor stage at Topanga Canyon Lewis’ Napoleon uses the phrase “alternative facts,” a term coined by President Trump’s PR flak Kellyanne Conway. “We as a company discussed it,” says the inclusive Geer. “What was very exciting about working on this production is that the cast engaged in a way that was extraordinary… One of the things we said, ‘It’s entirely up to you, take out from what you see and hear today that troubles you… and if it works… we’ll change those words.’” Laughing, Geer adds that while this biting bit of dialogue isn’t in Hall’s version, “it might have been if it was written today.”
Orwell’s Proletarian Parable
Though Orwell graduated from Eton, that English bastion of academic elitism, one of his greatest gifts was his ability to make complex topics accessible to ordinary readers. For example, in his 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, Orwell succinctly and poetically expressed the essence of socialist philosophy. The brilliance of Animal Farm, subtitled A Fairy Story, is that it’s written like a fable, rendering the novella (and play) accessible to both adults and children – a concept that director Geer took by the horns in having it narrated by two kids (Shane McDermott and a girl Sierra Rose Friday).
Animal Farm is, rather famously, a parable of the Russian Revolution. In a nutshell, the animals at Manor Farm are abused by the exploitative farmer Mr. Jones (Steve Fisher). Shortly before his death, at a gathering of Manor Farm’s horses, lambs, chickens, cattle, pigs, etc., the boar Old Major (Thad Geer) denounces oppression by humans and calls on the “Beasts of England” to rise up, overthrow Homo sapiens, and establish an egalitarian society guided by the principles of “Animalism.” The rebellion is triggered when the neglectful Jones fails to feed the animals, who rise up and chase him off Manor Farm. The four-legged creatures strive to implement the principles of Animalism, expressed in banners proclaiming the Rebellion’s “seven commandments,” the most important being “All animals are equal.”
The pigs Napoleon (Mark Lewis), Squealer (Melora Marshall), and Snowball (Christopher Yarrow) emerge as leaders of the newly renamed Animal Farm. But soon the three not-so-little pigs have a falling out, disagreeing on how to build Animalism and develop the farm. Snowball wants to spread the “Rebellion,” but the practical Napoleon prefers to consolidate rule. Backed by propagandist Squealer and a growing squad of growling hounds, Snowball is driven into exile and later assassinated. Napoleon and Squealer usurp power, rewriting Animalism’s seven commandments. Betraying the Rebellion’s egalitarian ideals, they establish a new dictatorship in which the pigs become indistinguishable from humans. As the drudgery of rank and file beasts continues, Animalism’s most sacred tenet is cynically amended to “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” As Lewis put it, “the vision for the perfect society becomes corrupted and perverted.”
Where did Orwell’s ideas come from? In 1936, the Englishman volunteered to fight fascism in Spain, joining the militia of the POUM, the pro-Trotsky Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. In his heartbreaking Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes about the Barcelona masses enthusiastically cheering POUM fighters as they marched off to fight Franco’s Nazi- and Mussolini-backed fascists. Orwell spent about four months at the front, writing: “the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism… the ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England … the effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.”
Eventually, Orwell is shot in the throat in a trench at the frontlines, and on the very day he returned to Barcelona, POUM was outlawed by Stalinists acting in league with Moscow, which was aiding the Spanish Republic. Whereas only a few months earlier he’d been feted as an anti-fascist fighter in the Catalan capital, Orwell and his brave POUM companeros were now hunted as “collaborators” with the fascism they valiantly fought. The wounded Englishman was forced to flee Spain, crossing the Pyrenees into France – then, setting pen to paper, he expressed the themes of betrayal and totalitarianism in two of the greatest works of political fiction and satire ever written.
Decoding Animal Farm
WGTB’s production of the musical Animal Farm is being presented during the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution – but according to Geer, this is only coincidental.
Nevertheless, it’s fairly easy to decipher who many of the fable’s characters represent in real life. Mr. Jones signifies Imperial Russia’s Czar Nicholas. Old Major seems to be a composite character, based on Karl Marx (founder of communism) and Vladimir Lenin, who led the Bolsheviks to victory in 1917’s October Revolution. Although unlike Old Major, Lenin lived long enough to see the revolution he prophesied, after being shot in the throat (like Orwell was!) in 1918 by a would-be assassin, Lenin – who never fully recovered – died at the age of 53 in 1924. Like Lenin’s embalmed corpse at a Red Square mausoleum, Old Major’s skull is preserved and displayed as a totem at Animal Farm.
The Animals’ rousing anthem, “Beasts of England,” references “The Internationale.” Lewis, a classically trained singer who studied at Carnegie Mellon University, says Orwell’s conniving, manipulative pig is “modeled after [Joseph] Stalin,” the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who emerged as the Soviet Union’s tyrannical leader by the late 1920s. “My approach from a character standpoint was just ‘more’ – more, more, more, there’s never enough, of power, possessions, status,” explains Lewis. He adds, “this could be any despot anywhere in any time period. Because the basic nature of that type of person is the same – whether it’s Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, or Attila the Hun.”
Snowball symbolizes Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik who led the Red Army, apostle of “Permanent Revolution,” a theory of worldwide workers’ revolts. In the play, Snowball triumphantly leads “the Battle of the Cowshed” and dispatches pigeons far and wide to spread Animal Farm’s message of rebellion to other creatures. Like Trotsky who lost a faction fight with Stalin, Snowball is banished by the scheming Napoleon and Squealer, and liquidated (they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell).
The hard-working, steadfast, loyal carthorse Boxer (beautifully played by Max Lawrence in a wonderful, bare-chested costume with a stallion’s head and leather pants) is inspired by miner Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov, widely emulated as a model worker in the USSR for his prodigious productivity during the second five year plan. The growing pack of vicious dogs, of course, stands for Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD (later the KGB).
It’s harder to pinpoint exactly who Squealer, the pigs’ propagandist, is based on. Marshall’s (she often plays gender-crossing roles and adds here to her repertoire a trans-species character) depiction of the glib porker who exercises persuasive power over the other animals recalls Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev as portrayed by Jerzy Kosiński in Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic Reds. An icy, ironfisted agitprop officer, Zinoviev rewrote American journalist John Reed (Beatty)’s speeches. But Zinoviev was ousted by Stalin in 1926 and executed a decade later during the Moscow show trials. While these courtroom confessions – often for alleged collaboration with the exiled Trotsky (i.e., Snowball) in the form of sabotage – are indeed depicted in Orwell’s gory allegory, Squealer is never purged or executed by Napoleon.
Some suggest Squealer is supposed to be Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, a Stalin protégé who survived the Great Terror and whom the “Molotov Cocktail” was named after. Along with his German counterpart, he co-signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a short-lived Soviet-Nazi agreement that reversed the Soviet Union’s anti-fascist stance until it, too, was attacked by Hitler. (Orwell memorably lampoons this reversal of fortunes and alliances in 1984.) Others believe Squealer is a stand-in for the propagandistic Soviet mass media, such as the newspaper Pravda (which ironically means “Truth”).
The Clothes Make the Man – and Beast
Another element that makes this production unique is Vicki Conrad’s spot-on consummate critter costuming — arguably a character unto itself. Ensemble members such as “piggy” Jacquelin Schofield wear porcine snouts and lamblike Maya Brattkus sports woolly headgear, while with their wolf-like jagged jaws, Napoleon’s elite squad of canines visualize the word “snarl.” Adorned by crimson feathers, Cameron Rose is finger licking good as a rooster, while with their horses’ heads Max Lawrence, Lea Madda, and Katherine Griffith (understudied by Bridgette Campbell at the debut), as the steeds Stakhanovite Boxer, defector Mollie, and gentle Clover, are especially eye-catching.
“The clothes were specifically designed for this production,” says Geer. “We wanted to get the feeling of what it would be like in a post-apocalyptic future, so you have wire iron ears and no tails, it’s not real… Extraordinary Vicki Conrad is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with, because her mind totally understood what we were trying to do,” Geer gushed about Conrad, whose costuming for WGTB’s 2016 The Imaginary Invalid was Ovation Award-nominated.
WGTB’s production brings George Orwell’s heart-rending fable from the stable to the stage, proving that while all plays are equal, some plays are more equal than others.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s Animal Farm is in repertory with Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream out-of-doors at Topanga Canyon through Oct. 1. The Theatricum Speaker Series presents talkbacks after Animal Farm’s matinees on July 8 & 30, August 12 & 26. For tickets, visit: http://theatricum.com/tickets/