The Soviet Union collapsed years ago, but Snowball and Napoleon will live forever in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
What’s a totalitarian pig to do once the original target of an allegorical novel is no longer around?
Chris Mangels tackles that question in his provocative musical production of “Animal Farm” at College of the Sequoias in Visalia. His answer: Make the material relevant.
Welcome to an “Animal Farm,” then, with a distinct American flair, from the Texas drawl of its performers to the country-bluegrass-folk arrangements of its music.
“I wanted to reevaluate the play so we could turn it into something we could relocate in Middle America,” says Mangels, who directs the play for the college’s Experimental Theatre Ensemble.
For those who didn’t read the oft-assigned book in high school, “Animal Farm” is a dystopian tale of a farm in which the animals boot off their human overseer and establish a perfect communally-run society. Written in 1945 by a fiercely anti-Communist Orwell, the allegory matches animal characters to their Soviet counterparts. Snowball is based on elements of Trotsky and Lenin. Napoleon, the big villain of the piece, is a thinly veiled Stalin.
As some of the animals – notably the pigs, who are smarter – obtain power in this supposedly balanced society, that power predictably begins to corrupt. The novel includes the famous declaration: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Mangels didn’t do the musical adaptation himself. That was done in 1984 by the famed British theater director Peter Hall at the National Theatre. (Richard Peaslee wrote the music and Adrian Mitchell the lyrics.) Hall adapted the script by creating a narrator, in the form of a child, who tells the story. But Hall’s version still hit Orwell’s original Soviet theme pretty hard, for the obvious reason that the Soviet government was still firmly in control.
It’s about what people do when they get power – how ugly they can become, and how vicious they can be.
Thirty years later, the best way to shift the focus, Mangels decided, was through the music.
“The songs used to sound like Soviet anthems, but now, in this show, they sound more like protest songs, like folk songs,” he says.
Mangels transformed the child narrator into a down-home “Song Catcher,” played by Ben Rawls, a former COS student. An accomplished guitarist, Rawls worked with music director Rod Henczel to adapt the orchestral score to solo guitar, which provides the only accompaniment for the show. Rawls’ character, with an easy twang – “think Matthew McConaughey,” he says – comments on the story and advances the plot.
“It’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever done with guitar,” he says.
Also creative is the costume design, by COS faculty member James McDonnell, which with its vanilla palette has an Edwardian/World War I-undergarments feel, and the masks, created by Mangels and the 17-person cast. The wire masks allow the audience – which will be seated in the round on the COS stage – to see the actors’ faces. The wire outlines, designed crudely by each actor, are meant to be somewhat grotesque but still capture the essence of the animal.
The most important aspect of the show, however, is its tone and relevance, Mangels says. He wanted to steer clear of an oppressive, dystopian feel and turn “Animal Farm” into more of a “Urinetown” – a raucous but still dark political satire.
Though it comes smack in the middle of a strange and divisive American political campaign, the show isn’t obviously partisan, Mangels says.
“I don’t want anyone to come in and think, ‘I’ve tuned into FOX or I’ve tuned in to MSNBC.’ I think it has things to say about modern-day conservatives and I think it has things to say about modern-day liberals.”
The cast offstage has made it a point not to get too down-and-dirty partisan about the presidential election, Rawls notes – sort of an unspoken agreement – but is more interested in the larger issues the play raises about animal, ahem, human nature.
“It’s about what people do when they get power – how ugly they can become, and how vicious they can be,” Rawls says. “I’m eager to see what everyone gets out of it.”
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24; and April 28-30
- College of the Sequoias Theatre, 915 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
- www.costheatre.org/tickets, 559-730-3907
- $14, $12 seniors, $10 students