The Ugly Truth

Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Jeff Grygny

The Milwaukee Rep’s new production of Animal Farm opens with a pantomime: the players, dressed in filthy jumpsuits, laboriously drag a prop beef carcass across the stage. Theatrically (if improbably, considering the laws of physics) they flip it over their heads and onto a stainless steel gurney. Offstage it’s wheeled, and they head back for another one, This repeats a few times, to the sound of harsh industrial music, until a supervisor appears and tosses a simulated slab of meat on the floor. The players pounce on it, ripping it to pieces, and devour it greedily. This—workers desperately struggling for a tiny portion of their labor’s product—neatly encapsulates Marxism in one image, and provides the springboard for George Orwell’s extended metaphor of the descent of the Soviet State from revolutionary idealism to brutal dictatorship. His book achieved great success in the US, even becoming part of many school’s reading lists; an Aesop’s fable about the evils of communism (of course, it’s just about communism. Of course). Often mislabeled an allegory, Animal Farm is the bluntest of satires; it’s no more an allegory than the elephant and donkey of political cartoons. This production particularly, under the direction of May Adrales, is as subtle as a steel bolt to the skull.

It is really unfair to compare this Animal Farm to the one performed a few years back by the imaginative Quasimondo Physical Theatre, which was held in an actual barn, with charmingly rendered life-sized animal puppets. Orwell’s story gets whatever fun there is to be had from the amusing reduction of Stalin’s regime to barnyard politics. This  relentlessly literal production,  on the other hand, has little patience for fable: the actors carry abstract metal emblems of their particular animals. They are barely playing animals at all, but rather certain types of human characters. Moreover, following the artistic dictum that corruption is best depicted by making everything look as rotten as possible, the setting is a dismal abattoir, with cracked concrete floor and stark tile walls skewed in uncomfortable geometries.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Adrales wanted to convey “cruel and harsh labor conditions,” “soulless industrial and immigrant farms,” and “images of poverty, homelessness and extreme hunger.” So doing, she expands the frame of the narrative to encompass capitalism, be it multinational corporations exploiting  third world workers, national leaders chanting “jobs, jobs, jobs,” while siphoning off geysers of cash to billionaires, or even our own local piglets, making life harder while slurping money from the teats of their wealthy donors. All this is very clear. But since there is no real suspense or dramatic tension, the play becomes a grim, masochistic ritual. Well-executed movement sections, rhythmic and ceremonial, also create the sense of the retelling of a cultural myth. When the play reaches its depth of horror— the public execution of prisoners held on trumped up ideological crimes— it pulls the punch,  acting out the brutal murders upon cute stuffed toys. And though many in the audience might be grateful for this little mercy, it’s still quite disturbing.

The production really shines in the actors’ warm-hearted performances of their poor, put-upon human beasts. Stephanie Weeks and Deborah Staples  play workhorses who really want to believe that their leaders have their interests in mind, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Jonathan Gillard Daly, as a wise old donkey, represents the lumpen intellectual who, though powerless, sees exactly what’s going on, while Melvin Abston show us the fear that lurks behind the despot’s bravado. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart gracefully embodies the role of a filly who abandons the commune for the promise of sugar cubes and pretty ribbons; in her second role she runs away with the show, channeling every fork-tongued official spokesperson we’ve seen over the years, straight-facedly reciting the most shameful affronts to reason, logic and common sense, and getting away with it. Such gross absurdities would be funny if they weren’t so awful: ha ha, comrade. In this way, Animal Farm shows the cynical tactics of despotic con artists effectively back-footing potential opposition with a steamy haze of lies, threats, and empty rhetoric. Ian Wooldridge’s efficient adaptation condenses much of the book’s extraneous action, but leaves a few niggling plot holes unfilled.

Overall, this production makes its sobering statement clearly and powerfully: above all, that the only thing more outrageous than the lies that leaders tell is that others continue to follow them. It’s at the least a lesson from history that things will not get better by themselves, and a warning to those who fight for equality, lest they become the evil they rebel against. Maybe the only true ray of cheer in this nasty little fable will be found when it stops being so true.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents

Animal Farm

based on the novel by George Orwell

Adapted by Ian Woodridge

Directed by Mary Adrales

playing through February 11

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