The animals have taken over the Elite Theatre Company in its new production of Animal Farm.
While not a play, this production is a very dramatic and well-presented reading of Nelson Bond’s adaptation of George Orwell’s book. Orwell wrote the allegorical Animal Farm in 1945. It depicts a fanciful uprising in which civically driven and well-meaning barnyard animals revolt against their human master Farmer Jones (Larry Swartz). The satirical story was inspired by the events surrounding and following Russia’s socialist revolution of 1917.
Orwell’s farm animals overthrow their owner with the same spirit of hope, justice and community that have time and again inspired peasants and other suppressed lower classes to take up arms and fight against royalty, nobility and their own so-called 1-percenters. In the all-too-human events that follow, Orwell’s animals gradually glide down that slippery slope from civic-minded altruism and egalitarianism to bureaucracy, complacency, vanity, fear, segmentation and, ultimately, ruthless tyranny. Though written 70 years ago about events a generation earlier, Animal Farm may be as relevant and prescient today as it was in 1945.
The production is staged in a simple black-box theater with just a few sparse but appropriate props. Aside from the scripts held in the actors’ hands, there is little to distract from the faces of the seven talented performers spread in a loose semicircle across the small stage. What other productions might relegate to lavish sets and artistic staging, the versatile castmembers of Animal Farm portray entirely in faces, voice and tone.
Despite the almost complete lack of stage motion or choreography, the players express their characters and emotions with delightful vocal characterizations, engaging intonations and often delicate and telling facial expressions. Boxer (Ken Johnson) and Clover (Cecily Hendricks) deliver some of the most touching and poignant characterizations, bringing a very personal and sympathetic face to this macro-societal epic. Orwell’s words and the cast’s heartfelt performance come together to paint vivid and colorful images in the otherwise empty space of the stage. The characters’ voicing and narration is powerfully accentuated with short, well-chosen bursts of background music peppered throughout the performance.
The ensemble cast delivers a spirited account full of emotion, passion, heroism, hope and heartbreak. Squealer (Patrick Crowder) and Napoleon (Adam Womack) personify the vanity and corruption of unchecked authority. Director William Carmichael leads his cast to infuse the tragic tale with just enough lightheartedness, sarcasm and whimsy to appropriately offset the dark tones of this all-too-real misadventure in society and government. Benjamin (Aaron Van Etten), Mollie and Muriel (both voiced by Susan Franzblau) imbue their characters with the most delightful subtle humor. For a show with very few human characters, the players express an amazing diversity of human spirit and emotion. Animal Farm tells a sweeping generational story, made meaningful and convincing through the eyes and hearts of a few very human animals caught at the center of events in a timeless cross-section of history.
Animal Farm through Nov. 29 at Elite Theatre, 2731 S. Victoria, Oxnard. 483-5118 or