Adapted from George Orwell’s notable 1945 parable Animal Farm, by the well-respected playwright, director and TheatreFirst’s artistic facilitator Jon Tracy, The Farm is an exhilarating musical portrayal of greed and corruption by the animals who revolt against the harsh owner of their farm. Originally commissioned by Shotgun Players and performed in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park in 2009, The Farm has been refreshed, and likely viewed with new intensity because of our current political climate.
Using original music, dance and spoken word, Tracy and the excellent cast of The Farm have reinvigorated Orwell’s allegory of Stalin’s regime in the former Soviet Union. Although to appreciate this production, one need not have knowledge of the original Orwell novella or the Communist politics that Orwell ridiculed. But it does enrich the performance, if only to help identify the animals that the actors portray and their place in the pecking order. To a certain extent, the narration by the raven Moses (first-rate Dezi Solèy) serves this purpose, yet I spent more time than I should have trying to figure out which animals were which at the start of the first of two acts. I should have spent more time looking at the hands and feet of the actors, since they are wrapped to resemble the animals they portray.
As The Farm begins, the old boar, Old Major, who is based on a combination of Marx and Lenin (nicely played by Anthony Frederick Aranda), incites the animals of Manor Farm to rebel and capture the farm from its human owner. Three pigs, deemed to be the most intelligent animals by the barnyard denizens, take the reins of the farm. The intelligent and dedicated Snowball, the original head of the farm after the overthrow, (excellent Molly O’Brien), is based on Trotsky and/or Lenin. Snowball had structured the “Seven Commandments of Animalism,” the tenets of the revolution (e.g., “All animals are equal”) and fought bravely in the revolution. Yet Snowball is overthrown and discredited by the despotic and ambitious Napoleon (exceptional work by Tierra Allen), Orwell’s stand-in for Stalin. Napoleon’s enforcer, Squealer (effective Marlon Richardson) is based on Molotov, Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda. And after Snowball disappears, the aforementioned commandment then becomes “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
The horses fall just below the pigs in the farm’s status. Boxer, a loyal and dedicated horse, actually works himself to death in a touching death scene by actor Dameion Brown (terrific job). The mare Clover (lovely-voiced Anna Joham) wishes that she could understand the alphabet so that she could read the Seven Commandments. Molly (pleasing Laura Espino) is a vain young mare who cares only for her ribbons and sugar cubes, similar to a member of the former Russian nobility. Beneath them are the proletariat, who include dogs and sheep, with Stephanie Prentice as the dog, Bluebell.
This song-poem-beat-opera is greatly enlivened by Liz Tenuto’s inventive choreography, which resembles aspects of Les Miserables and Hamilton. New vocal arrangements by Carlos Aguirre and Stephanie Prentice are also successful, as is direction by Michael Torres and Elena Wright. The professionalism of the whole company far exceeds expectations of a small troupe performing in a neighborhood park.
TheatreFirst is dedicated to amplifying marginalized stories and “making theatre a place where social justice happens.” The Farm can be seen at the Live Oak Theater in Live Oak Park, North Berkeley and runs through Nov. 11. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit TheatreFirst online.