Hip-Hop 'Animal Farm' Grapples With Orwell's Vision of Political Decay

I guess you could say that TheatreFirst chose the right George Orwell story for the moment, or at least the more fluid-thinking of Orwell’s two famous dystopian novels. Where 1984 revels in a no-way-out aesthetic of brutal, totalitarian extremes, Animal Farm is shiftier, more alive to the way power mutates, vanishes, and rumbles through a society. This makes it nice source material for our slippery times.

The outlines of Orwell’s anti-Stalinist fable are faithfully reassembled in Jon Tracy’s rap-inspired adaptation (titled The Farm here) under Michael Torres and Elena Wright’s direction with choreography by Liz Tenuto. We follow the rise and triumph of an animal insurrection led by the wily and savage pig Napoleon, a cadre of intellectually savvy fellow swine, and a host of lesser farm animals. As with most revolutions, what happens after is of greater concern than the victories that propel it to power.

In many ways, the successes and failures of The Farm point to larger issues of how artists imagine the political. You can't fault the production's design, acting, direction and writing for energy and engagement. What is missing, though, is focus, trust, and the ability to present a vision of the world that allows an audience to approach it on their owns terms and reach their own conclusions.

This is a production anxious to let us know that something important is taking place. To say that the pitch is high would be an understatement: the performers rap-sing, stomp, and pound their way through a story that would have benefited from a good deal more subtlety and careful development. Bertolt Brecht’s musicals are a clear model: Brecht never let the music overwhelm his jaundiced and sharp tales of systemic injustice. In works like The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, we never lose the story and are always in a state of acute awareness.

Here, sensation rules, especially in the first act. Rap has become a kind of shorthand for revolutionary fervor, and seeing the cast of thirteen belt out Tracy’s verse to a pounding kettledrum seems enlivening and in line with a call to political consciousness. Unfortunately, much of it comes off as white noise.

The energy is astounding. But scene after scene of frenzied activity diminishes its impact. You start to feel as if you can anticipate not so much the story, but the method -- pounding drums, gospel-tinged oohs, and group stomping. It’s not a particularly rich artistic palette and seems more focused on gaining audience approval than in investigating a political condition.

Although The Farm is well-rehearsed and produced, it’s not until the second act, which explores the after-effects of the revolution, that the writing, acting, and overall production dynamics calm down enough to grapple with Orwell’s vision.

The simple demands of just telling and finishing a story force clearer artistic choices and a sharp shift in tone and tactics. So after the second act opens with another attempt at a show stomper or two, the play's focus shifts to the difficulties the animals have in maintaining the revolutionary spirit and building a new society. All of a sudden, there are characters with distinct personal and political needs, and the acting rises to a sharper level because of it.

Tierra Allen’s Napoleon is a terrifying mix of the sloppy and the ingenious; Demione Brown, as Boxer the horse, catches the suicidal nature of goodness and renunciation; Marlon Richardson’s pig Squealer reveals the steely machinations of the committed opportunist; and in his role as the donkey Benjamin, Dean Koya conveys the passive and limited nature of an alert intelligence. In those moments where the characters attempt to think and respond to the rapidly changing events around them, you get a sense of the spiritual nausea that the aftermath of revolutions often bring.

The Farm ends up being a smart take on our present political situation: we’ve never had to confront so clearly the limitations of our leaders and their followers, in both parties and across all factions. But the show is only smart when Tracy and the directors risk boredom and stop trying to overwhelm us with sensational gestures. After the revolution, every false move will kill you.

'The Farm' runs through November 11. For tickets and information click here.

ReviewsJohn WilkinsComment