Theater Review: ANIMAL FARM (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

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by Tony Frankel on September 20, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


In what is Los Angeles’s best season since well before the pandemic, comes along the best show of the season. Only in New York would one expect the caliber of talent and technical elements than in A Noise Within’s production of Animal Farm. Riveting, frightening, and entertaining, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot’s astounding marvel — her best staging to date — will leave you breathless.

The Cast

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 A Noise Within should mount this production of Sir Peter Hall’s stage adaptation, first seen at the National Theatre in 1984. 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, and the dishonesty of politics — democratic and dictatorial alike. When Orwell penned this allegory in 1945 — a few years before his 1984 was published — his portrait of Mr. Jones’s humble farm that becomes paradise when his animals, tired and hungry, overthrow the humans and establish the commandment, “All animals are created equal,” struck a vibrant chord in a world sick of war.

Geoff Elliott with Stanley Andrew Jackson III, Rafael Goldstein and Trisha Miller

Now, in a world sick of lies, greed, disease, incredibly out-of-touch leaders, and, yes, war, this classic warning of authoritarian regimes and how their perpetuation refuses to subside, is mandatory viewing. Yes, it can be depressing to watch mankind’s repetitive follies, even through the eyes of farm fauna, but this production gives voice to both man’s continuing creativity and his defiance against evil. 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.

Philicia Saunders, Deborah Strang, Geoff Elliott and Bert Emmett

I had read the book as a teenager (and it scared the crap out of me), and thus I thought I knew through a Poli-Sci class all about Orwell’s staunch opposition to Stalinism. I wasn’t expecting to find anything new in this parable, but here is an Animal Farm far from the novel’s literate and dialectical trappings. Although the stage version of Animal Farm faithfully — and chillingly — communicates Orwell’s sense of a corrupting discourse that devastates revolutions just as surely as the Marxist regimes incite them, this Animal Farm isn’t really Orwell’s work, even as some of his dialogue is plucked from the book. The songs and updates that we actually hear come from Sir Peter and his collaborators (the beginning of a boy reading from a book is wisely cut here for an opening chorus). Still, even an adaptation this good could end up being stodgy in the wrong hands.

The Cast

You are still on a farm in England (other adaptations take place in Russia or an unnamed city that resembles a totalitarian state), but this is one that Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht might have imagined. Adrian Mitchell‘s quirky lyrics are set to Richard Peaslee‘s music that sounds suitably utilitarian without being particularly memorable, which I think is the point. That dark, Weimar-era feel in the songs is right at home with the story.

Trisha Miller, Sedale Threatt Jr., Ensemble

In Rodriguez-Elliot’s capable and innovative hands, Animal Farm truly becomes a menagerie of perspicacious and prescient proportions. And all of this is easy to swallow because the anthropomorphic animals, especially in Angela Balogh-Calin‘s brilliant costumes, have a patina of wit about them, with masks and hair representing the very actor portraying the chicken, sheep or pig. Mollie, a pretty, foolish, and vain horse who abandons the cause to be well-cared for by a human with sugar, represents the bourgeois with her long, fluffy, almost hairsprayed mane; working for a new human outside the farm, her mane is finally filled with ribbons but it now looks like a helmet. Nicole Javier has a beautiful voice and heartbreakingly delivers the one true standalone song wherein she recognizes her fate as a man smoking behind her cracks a whip.

Nicole Javier

However, there is nothing funny about Rafael Goldstein‘s Napoleon, the porcine deviant drunk with power. When the husky-voiced actor, one of L.A.’s best, lets out a long squeal to silence dissenters, you may wish you could pull the covers over your head to end the nightmare. This makes it all the more devastating when Geoff Elliott as the virtuous workhorse Boxer, continues to trust Napoleon even as his eyes tell him otherwise. For her role as Squealer, the spin-control pig, the awesome Trisha Miller must have taken propaganda lessons from Kellyanne Conway: this Squealer is patronizing, righteous, scary and ridiculous. There isn’t a false note with the other seven members of the ensemble, and their dialects are superb.

Rafael Goldstein (Dogs: Cassandra Marie Murphy, Nicole Javier)

Above all is the use of glorious blocking on the thrust stage, with Calin responsible for the rotted barn and hayloft window upstage. Actors are nearly always on the move, hoisted or climbing a ladder, but never once does it feel inorganic. The true life comes from Ken Booth‘s directional lighting of shadows and fog. Notice how he never floods the stage, but projects colors and shading to heighten the emotions. Truly phenomenal work.

The Cast

photos by Craig Schwartz

Cassandra Marie Murphy, Rafael Goldstein

Animal Farm
A Noise Within, 3352 Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena
Thurs at 7:30 (September 9 0nly); Fri at 8; Sat at 2 and 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 2, 2022
for tickets, call 626.356.3121 or visit A Noise Within
free parking behind theater at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro parking structure

The Cast
Jeremy Rabb

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