Kaleidoscope Theatre’s spring show this year is a new adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. What makes this rather dark story a suitable choice for a young people’s theatre company?
Animal Farm is found on school curriculums and that alone makes it a good choice for a TYA company. The question is how to make a sixty-three year old satirical allegory about the Stalinist Soviet Union and the dangers of totalitarianism palatable to students in 2008. Orwell was addressing the corruption of socialist ideals in his barely disguised fable. Of course, political corruption remains just as relevant an issue today and there will always be plenty of valuable learning to be had from Orwell that is timeless. Human nature tends toward a will to power and we see the pigs of animal farm—after their leadership of a great and successful rebellion against the farmer Mr. Jones—become ever-more corrupt and human-like, altering all the established rules along the way. The story does lead us into a dark conclusion, there is no denying the patterns of history, which we should receive as a warning against those who would diminish our collective powers to choose and to act. This is the responsibility of social democracy, to be vigilant about equality, social justice and human rights. Animal Farm reminds us of these important matters in the manner of a fairy tale.
How does this production deal with the challenges of presenting such a troubling political morality tale?
The characters in Animal Farm are mostly animals. The farm setting is simple and pastoral as we meet all the various creatures who live and work on Mr. Jones’ farm, all designed by Sabrina Miller. Three actors introduce a large number of different characters, some of whom will not survive the revolution and life afterwards. The actors, appropriately, also play the pigs by way of simple helmet masks that sit on top of their heads. The puppets are life size and made of thick foam covered with cotton and painted. The larger animals have just a head and neck on a stick, like a hobbyhorse. Many of the puppets have handles sewn onto them, for the actors to maneuver them around the stage. A simple barn frames the stage, with a rolling sheet providing backdrops and information. The actors step in and out of their roles throughout, sometimes wondering aloud about where the story is going. One actor complains late in the show that her characters have all run away or been killed! While this theatrical device can be sometimes pretentious and precious (Brecht notwithstanding), here it seems to work in helping to remind us we are watching a story being told…it is a distancing technique that feels right for this piece. There is music and clever sound and cool lighting effects, all of which draw the audience in quite effectively. So the show takes a somewhat lighter approach to the material, refusing to signal too much ahead until right into the second act. And I wonder how young people will process and make sense of the unhappy ending; I hope Kaleidoscope incorporates postshow talkbacks into their schedule, especially for their school audiences.
What is the overall effect of puppets and humans together on stage?
The company of three actors works well together and all create a number of different characters. John Emmet Tracy moves seamlessly from animal to animal and provides a distinct vocal quality for each one; I especially liked his dogs as they move from benign and harmless to vicious police dogs of the state. Leslie Bland does a good job with the evil pig leader Napolean, playing him as a wiseguy gangster, and does nicely with the devoted (if dimwitted) loyalist Boxer the horse. Kirsten Van Ritzen plays Snowball the pig, the Cat, Muriel the Goat and Mollie the horse; all sympathetic characters who find themselves victims of the revolution on the farm and Van Ritzen gives us an interesting female perspective on events in her effective portrayals. The puppets are less successful for me. They impress at first due to their large scale. But they are very bulky and blocky, they are not really animated and so the actors are left with little range of physical movement with them (the exception is Tracy’s Moses the Crow who can fly…and we feel the difference)…a bit like working with sofa cushions. Because the actors play the pigs throughout, they are often manipulating a puppet and speaking in its voice, but still with their pig masks on. This can become a bit confusing at times, and I wonder how a younger audience will do with it. I would prefer smaller and more animated puppets, or even just props and simple costumes worn by the actors to shift characters…it would give them more to do creatively in physical ways as opposed to the running from puppet to puppet that we mostly see here. But those points aside, there’s a lot to like in this show and director/playwright Ian Ferguson has done a very good job in bringing Orwell’s warning about the corruption of power to a new audience.