I watched a stellar production Friday morning of College of the Sequoias’ “Animal Farm” at a special school presentation. There are only three performances remaining this weekend (with tickets next to impossible to get at this point), but for those lucky enough to see the show, I wanted to offer a few thoughts:
Director Chris Mangels and his creative team at COS have pushed the boundaries once again by staging a thoughtful, edgy show that offers a sly recalibration of the source material. Instead of presenting the musical-theater version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” wrapped up in a big, bombastic Cold War package, Mangels and music consultant Rod Henczel give it a hometown twang that somehow makes it all that much more menacing. While Orwell’s allegory was directly aimed at Communism and the Soviet Union, this production feels a lot closer to home. Though no location is named, the thick twang of the characters strongly suggests a y’all-in-the-Red-States-now setting, and the folk-bluegrass stylings of the solo guitar accompaniment help seal the deal.
Mangels’ scenic design is memorable. He’s created an enclosure on the stage of the performing arts center that seats a small audience of 100. With the chainlink fencing, bright searchlights and two watchtower-like structures looming overhead, you feel like you’re in a prison camp.
Benjamin Rawls is a strong part of the production. As the “Songcatcher,” he narrates the story and provides the accompaniment, and his easygoing persona helps make a dramatic contrast to the ever-ratcheting tension on stage. I’m impressed, too, with Rawls’ guitar work, from plunking out a plaintive strain of “Taps” on single strings to full-throttled, down-home strumming.
The cast is exceptionally well prepared. Every moo, neigh, cluck and shuffle pulls us closer into the conceit of the show, and there was a point in which the abstraction of the animal “costumes” – which consist of highly stylized wire masks and what looks essentially like old-fashioned long johns – actually drew me into the barnyard. There’s so much to watch in this show: the way the slightly hunched sheep pad along; the doleful body language of the hard-working horse; the slithering of the cat. Very impressive.
One of my favorite performances comes from Brittney Burris as Squealer, who in the original “Animal Farm” is a sycophantic propagandist pig in the mold of Soviet misinformation. Now Squealer is more a kill-with-kindness spin doctor, announcing each restriction on personal freedom on the farm with a chilling affability. I decided that such pronouncements made in a gentle drawl are more menacing than terse declarations made in a Russian accent. Burris (who has quite a nice singing voice as well) is particularly good at camouflaging her toxic moves with a cheesy goodwill.
Other standouts in the cast include JJ Gonzalez as Boxer, the put-upon horse; Kayla Seffing as Mollie, a sweet pony; and Tamla Quipse as Snowball, one of the pigs that leads the revolution (her duet “A Nothing Song” with Rawls is particularly chilling).
On the critical side: This doesn’t really feel like a musical-theater piece to me, more like a play with music, and part of me wondered how much it needed the music at all. When Napoleon (played with smarmy efficiency by Antony Lotenero), the pig modeled after Stalin, sings his “Runt of the Litter,” it’s one of the few times in the show that I felt the music really took us to a place where mere prose couldn’t, revealing something deep and meaningful about his character. At the same time, I love the character of the Song Catcher playing and singing throughout. I’m divided on this one. (Also, the unmiked ensemble is far stronger overall when it comes to acting than singing, which colored my perception of the music’s effectiveness.)
And another criticism: I love the masks, but the long-underwear concept for the costumes (designed by James McDonnell) missed the mark for me. Flattering, non-form-fitting black would have been a better way to go.
Other creative credits: Steve LaMar’s lighting design is powerful, Nick Terry’s sound design potent and Schyler Mayo’s choreography adds a charge to the production.
Overall: It’s a production not to miss. (Which means if you don’t have tickets already, you probably have.) At one point, when the pigs – who consider themselves the “brain workers” of the farm – maneuver things so they get to drink all the milk from the cows, I thought not of Communist Party officials wolfing down caviar but of tax breaks for the wealthy, luxurious private schools and helipads on the tops of office buildings so that investment bankers can get home without mingling with the masses. I guess, then, that Mangels and his hard-working band were successful in updating good old George Orwell. By the time the most famous line in the play is uttered – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” –the impact really hit me. Gave me lots to think about on my Highway 99 drive back to Fresno.
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
- College of the Sequoias Theatre, 915 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
- www.costheatre.org/tickets, 559-730-3907
- $14, $12 seniors, $10 students