I guess you could say that TheatreFirst chose the right George Orwell story for the moment, or at least the more fluid-thinking of Orwell’s two famous dystopian novels. Where 1984 revels in a no-way-out aesthetic of brutal, totalitarian extremes, Animal Farm is shiftier, more alive to the way power mutates, vanishes, and rumbles through a society. This makes it nice source material for our slippery times.
The outlines of Orwell’s anti-Stalinist fable are faithfully reassembled in Jon Tracy’s rap-inspired adaptation (titled The Farm here) under Michael Torres and Elena Wright’s direction with choreography by Liz Tenuto. We follow the rise and triumph of an animal insurrection led by the wily and savage pig Napoleon, a cadre of intellectually savvy fellow swine, and a host of lesser farm animals. As with most revolutions, what happens after is of greater concern than the victories that propel it to power.
In many ways, the successes and failures of The Farm point to larger issues of how artists imagine the political. You can't fault the production's design, acting, direction and writing for energy and engagement. What is missing, though, is focus, trust, and the ability to present a vision of the world that allows an audience to approach it on their owns terms and reach their own conclusions.
This is a production anxious to let us know that something important is taking place. To say that the pitch is high would be an understatement: the performers rap-sing, stomp, and pound their way through a story that would have benefited from a good deal more subtlety and careful development. Bertolt Brecht’s musicals are a clear model: Brecht never let the music overwhelm his jaundiced and sharp tales of systemic injustice. In works like The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, we never lose the story and are always in a state of acute awareness.
Here, sensation rules, especially in the first act. Rap has become a kind of shorthand for revolutionary fervor, and seeing the cast of thirteen belt out Tracy’s verse to a pounding kettledrum seems enlivening and in line with a call to political consciousness. Unfortunately, much of it comes off as white noise.
The energy is astounding. But scene after scene of frenzied activity diminishes its impact. You start to feel as if you can anticipate not so much the story, but the method -- pounding drums, gospel-tinged oohs, and group stomping. It’s not a particularly rich artistic palette and seems more focused on gaining audience approval than in investigating a political condition.