Is it OK for a stage version of Orwell’s Animal Farm to be funny? How about cute, can it be cute in places?
That’s what I was thinking while watching the Arvada Center’s new Black Box Repertory Theatre production of Orwell’s satire about power. Written at the end of World War II as an allegory about the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, it’s a tale about the failings of humanity that’s told, in this version, with a whimsy that belies the grim plot.
Much of that is due to Jessica Robblee, who adapted the play adaptation for the stage and directed this one with a singular vision that really sings. I saw many of these cast members in the wacky production of The Liar — also running as part of Arvada’s repertory season — and I was happy to spend time with them onstage again in a very different kind of play.
Costume designer Nicole Watts put together an inspired look for the characters that, while it stops far short of full-on barnyard animal suits, finds an ideal middle ground through inventive, elaborately eared hats, dual-purpose gloves and Scarecrow-like clothes with dangling threads that evoke the sort of rumpled look one might imagine animals would have if they, you know, wore clothes. Watts also designed the puppets used in the show (along with Aaron Vega and Tristan Cupp), including a group of pigeons serving as messengers about goings-on outside the farm.
Abner Genece as Old Major gets the animals primed for revolution | Amanda Tipton Photography
Against a nicely functional set designed by Brian Mallgrave, the visual impact of this show is powerful and a bit unexpected for anything with the name “Orwell” attached to it. But why not throw some color at this thing? We already know it’s a king-hell bummer of a story.
(Insert obligatory graf here about how Orwell’s story is prescient and highly relatable in these times, with Russia again making trouble and the rise of authoritarianism across the globe and here at home.)
Yes, most of us know the story of Animal Farm well enough that we can easily draw parallels with what are, unfortunately, repeating themes that all come back to abuse of power. Pick your poison: Stalin, Putin, Trump, Assad or Kim Jong-un, all the ingredients for the grand recipe of political assholery are recognizable here on the farm. Villains zealously gaslight the barnyard, with Logan Ernstthal as pig dictator-in-training Napoleon and Sean Scrutchins as his toady Squealer reveling in their manipulation of the other animals as they systematically dismantle the idealist set of rules laid out after the revolution that kicked out Farmer Jones.
This cast does such a nice job of realizing Orwell’s choice of animals to represent people: sorta dumb and slow to catch on and waking up too late to make a difference. Even Napoleon and Squealer assume their own parts as nitwits falling into a natural path rather than following some evil plan.
I loved the portrayals of the horses, Clover and Mollie/Boxer, by Noelia Antweiler and Topher Embrey, respectively. Embrey starts off as the dumbest animal on the farm, the horse Mollie, having a field day with her as a fainting-couch Southern Belle type, then switches to worry-wart Boxer when Mollie leaves. Clover becomes a moral center of sorts, with Antweiler playing her as a concerned mom — a horse with a mission to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s a great performance from an actor who commands attention even amidst a cast all capable of grabbing the light. Embrey, too, is the kind of enormous presence directors may want to try reining in, but Robblee gives this horse his head, resulting in a magnetic interpretation of Boxer that’s both funny and pathetic.
The director also has a winning lineup in the henhouse, with a pair of spitfires played by familiar faces in Colorado — Kristina Fountaine and Sarah Harmon (they also play a few others). Their stand against Napoleon and Squealer when they want to sell all their eggs is inspiring, but in the end resistance proves futile as the animals in power plow ahead and take on more and more human (read: bad) characteristics.
Animal Farm runs about 80 minutes with no intermission, and the result is a fast-moving train that’s impeccably orchestrated by Robblee and stage manager Christine Rose Moore. And at every turn, it seems, there’s some lo-fi special effect that could have been borrowed from some kid’s play. Even the blood, depicted through red fabric pulled from the actors’ clothing, has a playfulness to it that stands in contrast to the horrors being inflicted on the characters.
The overall effect of all these pieces working so well together is a piece of theatre that’s wonderfully impactful and surprising, despite the well-known source material. And it shows off the Arvada Center’s capability to produce top-flight literary plays alongside bigger crowd-pleasers like Kinky Boots, also showing now.