Chicago Theater Review: ANIMAL FARM (Steppenwolf)

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by Barnaby Hughes on October 18, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

THE FARM-TO-FABLE REVOLUTION IS HERE

(left to right, top to bottom) Squealer (Amelia Hefferon), Napoleon (Blake Montgomery), Dog (Sean Parris), Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford) and Dog (Dana Murphy) enforce a new order in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.One of the most extraordinary things about George Orwell’s novels is their prophetic power; they are perhaps even more relevant now than when he wrote them. Thus, it is incredibly timely that Steppenwolf for Young Adults should mount the present production of Animal Farm. Instead of reading it in light of twentieth century Russian history, it is now possible to interpret Animal Farm in terms of environmental degradation, the failed promise of capitalism, or the dishonesty of politics–democratic and dictatorial alike.

The popular story concerns the animals of Mr. Jones’s Manor Farm who, desirous to live free from the tyranny of human masters, plot a rebellion. But the new democratic society they establish soon reverts to tyranny. Althos Low’s adaptation of Orwell’s 1945 novella hues closely to the original while enlivening it with a fresh interpretation. (Dr. Althos Jepthal “Shanghai” Low is the pseudonym for writers Alice Austen and Steve Pickering of Shanghai Low Theatricals, an adaptation development group based in Chicago.)

Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) plots his revenge in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

In director Hallie Gordon’s capable hands, Animal Farm truly becomes a menagerie of perspicacious and prescient proportions. Setting up the stage lengthwise between two tiers of audience seating, she juxtaposes Orwell’s study and Jones’s farmhouse with the barn and its hayloft opposite. These are the twin poles of the action (Orwell provides a brief introduction at the top regarding the circumstances of writing Animal Farm).

Man (Will Allan) reframes writing as a weapon in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s carefully constructed and detailed set includes the house’s hunting trophies that horrify the farm animals, and the barn wall painted with the Seven Founding Rules, a.k.a. the Commandments of Animalism. J. R. Lederle’s lighting design provides seamless transitioning between scenes and serves to maintain the production’s even pacing.

Boxer (Matt Kahler) completes a hard day’s work while cheered on by his fellow animals (left to right) Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford), Julia (Jasmine Bracey), Squealer (Amelia Hefferon), Pinkeye (Lance Newton), Maggie (Lucy Carapetyan), Napoleon (Blake Montgomery), Mollie (Dana Murphy) and Benjamin (Will Allan) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

Costume designer Izumi Inaba creatively fits each farm animal with hoof gloves and a kind of mask that leaves the mouth and eyes uncovered so that the actors can still express a range of emotions. As an incredibly effective metaphor for death, each character’s end is enacted through the stripping off of mask and gloves, which are left in a heap centerstage. Otherwise, each actor is clothed in a green jumpsuit and army boots, highlighting the revolutionary spirit of these far from docile livestock.

Benjamin (Will Allan) questions the new leadership supported by Squealer (Amelia Hefferon) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Animal Farm, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

Either despite the masks or because of them, only certain characters really stand out from the herd. Lucy Carapetyan’s Maggie is particularly endearing as the odd hen out. Her twitchy movements aptly and comicly mimic those of her animal role, as does the braying speech patterns of Will Allan’s donkey Benjamin.

Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford), Pinkeye (Lance Newton), Mollie (Dana Murphy), Snowball (Sean Parris) and Maggie (Lucy Carapetyan) celebrate the first sunrise on their own farm in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

Each part is well-filled by the mostly youthful cast. Jasmine Bracey pours her heart into the voice of charismatic Old Major, the pig who gives the rebels their song and slogans. As her polar opposite, Blake Montgomery proves to be a sinister swine as Napoleon, who gradually erodes the idealistic order Old Major had set in motion before her untimely death.

Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) and Snowball (Sean Parris) negotiate leadership in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.

Enlivened by music (Rick Sims), action, and ideas, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ Animal Farm opens the season on a high note. It is a production for both young and old that cannot fail to ignite the imagination and inflame the spirit. “All hail the revolution.”

photos by Michael Brosilow

Pinkeye (Lance Newton) and Julia (Jasmine Bracey) pitch in to help Boxer (Matt Kahler) pull the cart in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of ANIMAL FARM, a world premiere adaptation by Althos Low, directed by Hallie Gordon.Animal Farm
Steppenwolf for Young Adults
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St
Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 and 7:30; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on November 9, 2014
EXTENDED to November 16, 2014
for tickets, call 312-335-1650
or visit www.steppenwolf.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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