Posted by: strugglesome | January 21, 2011

Whole Hog: Underground Arts and Fresh Ground Pepper Present: Our Farm

You show me a young person under the age of 18 who hasn’t read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and I will show you an alien. Or a non-English speaker. Or a mormon. Okay, there are a lot of people who haven’t read Animal Farm, but, seriously, most of the people who attended high school in the United States have at least taken a look at the classic Orwellian horror story about power, soviet politics, and pigs. Or is it really about the age-old struggle between man and beast, domesticator and domesticated? Or is it really about collective action versus individual rights? And wouldn’t exploring all that make a good idea for a play? Andrew Farmer, writer of Our Farm, certainly seems to think so, because this new work directed by Andrew Neisler and presented by Underground Arts and Fresh Ground Pepper examines all of these questions and more, hoeing the intellectual landscape of Orwell’s novella in an effort to find new growth. And in this darkly funny rumination on theater, group dynamics and the animal kingdom, he is largely successful in turning our understanding of Animal Farm inside out, and letting us enjoy the process with him.

Staged in the deeply industrial Underground Arts Space (unintentionally reminding one of Meyerhold’s scenic constructivism, a nice coincidence for a play about Animal Farm), and produced and supported by Fresh Ground Pepper, a New York based monthly series for new performance development, and entirely designed (in a somewhat Herculean effort, considering the challenges of the space, by Christopher Bowser) the piece begins as a workshop of sorts, and we are introduced to a wheelchair bound Snowball (a fantastic Elizabeth Ness), traditionally identified as the Trotsky of Animal Farm‘s little Soviet Union, who rails against Orwell’s work as a propagandistic whitewashing of what was in fact a true collectively run farm. In an effort to right (and write) the wrongs of human falsehoods, and set the story straight. Animals, Snowball explains, are not here to teach us lessons about humanity, they are individuals in their own right, and their stories deserve to be told. To that end, Snowball has formed the Theatrical Assembly of Self Realized Animals, an comically sincere group of would-be artists who are eager to shake free from the chains of human-domination and explore their feelings using some really terrible performance art.

Lead by their benevolent dictator, Snowball, this plucky group of animals shows us several of the exercises in their artistic process, and prepares to perform Snowball’s version of Animal Farm, in a display of mangled Strasberg technique and physical expression that is pure comedy to anyone who has ever taken a drama class. It’s little wonder that the majority of the cast and creative minds behind this piece attended NYU Tish School of Drama, because the types of actors represented by this largely strong group of artists are immediately recognizable and hilarious. We have the formerly famous guy (the excellent Alex Fast who plays Snowball II), we have the dim jock (an adorable and endearing Roe Hartrampf, Boxer the horse), the kiss-ass diva (the regal Claire Rothrock, Clover the mare), the extremely serious activist artist (the painfully committed Grace Folsom, Moses the Raven), the completely uninterested guy who is there for the credit (Dave Scheffler, Benjamin the Donkey) and the two sheepdogs (Max Reuben and Ryann Weir). Oh, you didn’t have sheepdogs in your Drama class? What kind of two-bit school did YOU attend? And we also have Fran, the long-suffering human intern, played beautifully by Jaclyn Backhouse, who is also on of the co-creators of Fresh Ground Pepper.

But as this motley crew tries to perform for us, the audience, Snowball’s story, a Greek tragedy of barnyard proportions, they are hampered by stage fright,  personal agendas, and Snowball herself, who can’t stop directing long enough to “let the piece breathe” as we say in the stage lingo. Before Snowball gets a chance to retell her tale to her liking (and before the other animals get a chance to tell her to shut the hell up and stop micromanaging), she is interrupted by a blast from the past, Napoleon himself, our own little Josef Stalin (a menacing but manic Maxwell Eddy) who has his own version of the story. And a knife. And he plans to make sure that we take the time to fully appreciate both of them. Napoleon hijacks the piece without qualm, directing the animals into his version of events and standing on his soap box to declare that animals are worthless and deserve to be subservient to humans. And the odd thing is, everyone just lets him do so. With the entrance of Napoleon and his guard dog band (Miriam Miller and Michael Brun, who provide a wonderful score for the second half of the play), the piece takes a decided turn towards the violent and the chaotic, moving from a play that felt like it was moving forward in unity, to a circus directed by a sadistic ringmaster with everyone else standing around in horror.

The key issue with that is standing around, that is, the way the piece is structured in its second half, it leaves the majority of the cast just standing on stage, acting out various incarnations of “scared”. And while Maxwell is dynamic enough to be interesting to watch for 40 minutes, if you have all those bodies on display sooner or later you are going to expect them to do something. As the piece moves from a highly ordered narrative progression into a messy (literally) rapid pace carnival ride, it spins out of control a little bit, departing from its central concerns and contradicting itself, arguing from all sides but not presenting any one as the clear winner. Because while it is the scientific truth that as Napoleon says, “Animals don’t do things because they want to, they do them because they have to”, that statement gently negates everything we are agreeing to believe in by watching this play, that is, these are animals but they have emotions, thoughts, needs, desires, free will. We’ve bought into that notion over the course of the piece and having Napoleon just eliminate that feels like a betrayal.

Though of course it’s easy to forget that these characters are animals when they aren’t really acting like animals. While we get the occasional nicker and whinny, it would be nice to have the animals exist at a ratio of say 20% animal to 80% human, instead of 2% animal and 98% human as it is now. If the text was a bit better supported by the physicality maybe we could better recall that what we are watching is more nature channel than Masterpiece presents.

But despite it’s handful of issues, the play stands as a series of fascinating proposals on theater, humanity and community, giving us a cynical but realistic look at the perils of power. Of the many questions that linger with us, we ask ourselves, is Napoleon any worse, really, then Snowball? I mean,  Snowball is encouraging “self realized animals…under [her] direction”. She talks a good game, but the truth is that the Assembly is just a tool for Snowball to use to get her story out there. Napoleon makes no bones about his controlling nature, he may be evil, but at least he’s honest. And think of what sins have been committed in the name of good…

If you love animals, or hate animals, or love George Orwell, or hate George Orwell, I am sure you will all find something to love about Our Farm. And for those of you who had hoped that this piece was some kind of perverse marriage between Animal Farm and Our Town, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you should go see the play anyway, I’m sure you’ll get over your displeasure.  Tickets are available here, the show runs Friday the 21st, Saturday the 22nd and Sunday the 23rd.

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