"So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause." - Star Wars, Episode III
Like The Crucible or, for that matter, The Hunger Games, George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) is an allegorical novel - meaning it isn't about what it seems to be about. If you skipped it in high school, then you owe it to yourself to read it now. It's short, and amazing, and tells you everything you need to know about how lofty political ideals can sour into greed, oppression, and oligarchy. For understandable reasons, it was banned in the Eastern Bloc until 1989.
Here's a quick refresher: the animal workers of Manor Farm stage a glorious revolution and drive away Mr. Jones, their despised human ruler. They institute a new democratic regime, but it turns out, as the famous line goes, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." The pigs, you see, can read and write, and they use these abilities to dominate the other species and (pardon the expression) hog the fruits of their labor. Animal Farm tracks the rise to power of a ruthless porker named Napoleon, and if you know your 20th-century history, you'll have no trouble recognizing him as a stand-in for Stalin.
Director Samantha Chandler and her team of designers have risen to the stature of this classic cautionary fable. Olympia Family Theater delivers a show as technically proficient as those of Harlequin Productions - thanks in large part to Harlequin's reigning tech director, Jill Carter, who designed this OFT production's set (with Lyndsey Nichols) and a jaw-dropping series of animations. Grand battles are represented in cartoon form, projected onto a movie screen in the barn of Animal Farm. This allows Chandler the freedom to portray dark history indeed, as the screen drowns in a deluge of spilled animal blood.
I found the text and technical triumphs of OFT's Animal Farm thoroughly absorbing. It's a shame, then, that not all its performances rise to that stellar level. Morgan Picton has exceptional stage presence as Napoleon, and efforts have been made to give his constituent critters barnyard mannerisms. Unfortunately, while it's tough to say what constitutes overacting for animals, I saw a lot of indicating (i.e., false emoting) at the dress rehearsal I attended. That may have been anomalous, as it came from proven actors, but mostly I saw the awkward juxtaposition of presentational "children's theater acting" in what's essentially a parable for adults. It just didn't work for me, but you might find the incongruity appropriate to the unsettling material.
This is not a story for children. "Or is it?" you may ask, but I suspect it is not. The vocabulary is too advanced, the tyranny too grim and the climax too unsettling. It's to the credit of adapter Ian Wooldridge that, in contrast to the writers of the 1954 animated version, he doesn't wuss out on the ending. There's no saving second revolution, because Orwell wrote his fable long before the perestroika of Gorbachev or the reunification of Germany.
The play ends so abruptly that I thought a tech cue had gone awry. But no, that's the story. The good guys don't always win, at least not for decades. Historian R. J. Rummel estimates Joseph Stalin was responsible for the deaths of some 43 million people - more than slavery in the U.S. Your kids may or may not be ready for that horrifying reality.
Through April 8, 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday
1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $9-16
Olympia Family Theater, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Stage & Visual Reviews