Have you ever noticed that musical adaptations generally hit the stage after the demise of the authors of the original works? It makes me wonder, for instance, what T.S. Eliot would think of Cats. Or, better yet, picture George Bernard Shaw on the opening night of My Fair Lady. I see Shaw with a livid red face; as he reaches inside his tweed jacket for a revolver, it becomes apparent that he’s newly converted from the politics of pacifism. OK, now try to imagine George Orwell in the audience of this musical version of Animal Farm.
No, I just can’t picture him. And, personally, I’m perplexed by the whole notion of a musical adaptation. I mean, Animal Farm seems like a perfectly good novel. It doesn’t beg on its hands and knees to be turned into a musical. It’s short, too. You could almost read it at home in the time it would take you to go to the theater and see it. And, because it’s a visually evocative novel, your own imagination is better equipped than any theater to paint the scenery and infest it with talking animals. Maybe Frank Oz, or the Disney crew, or Ralph Bakshi could pull this thing off, but why bother, unless the medium and the nature of the adaptation enlarge upon the vision of the original?
Nevertheless, Sir Peter Hall bothered, and his adaptation is faithful, in both tone and content, to Orwell’s novel. It’s a competent dramatization, but I don’t see where it informs upon anything in the original. So, if you’ve read the book, you know everything that’s going to happen before it happens. No surprises. I was bored out of my mind. My girlfriend left at intermission. Did this thing really win five Jeff citations last season?
Yes it did: for production, direction, costumes, ensemble, and individual performance. What gives? If last season’s production was anything like this one–and half the original cast has returned–it should have won five traffic citations. I want to see the resume of every judge on that Jeff panel.
That’s not altogether fair; the costumes are super. Steve Pickering had a tall order in front of him there, turning actors into animals. Pickering’s stroke of brilliance was to rig a weird array of crutches for all the four-legged animals, so that the actors are hunched over with their heads thrown back. Some of the crutches have ingenious hinges on them, which work like fetlocks, giving the horses a distinctive posture and movement. It’s not so magical that you lose your mind and start seeing the characters as animals. But once you get over the impression that this production should be subtitled “Handicapped Farm,” Pickering’s design is effective enough to sustain the edge of the animal/human allegory. Pickering was also savvy enough to stay away from masks. He devised some prosthetic snouts that don’t hide the actors’ facial expressions. I wish the actors would capitalize on that.
The best performance is given by Tina Thuerwachter (as Napoleon, the Stalinist pig). She won a Jeff citation last season in this same role. She’s good all right, and not just a little spooky in the role, but she plays a pig. That’s a sad comment on all those actors she beat out last season who played human beings. Anyway, Thuerwachter intelligently shapes her performance to suit the play. Rather than playing Napoleon as an individual, she projects an archetype of power corrupted by privilege, brutality, and greed. Get rid of her crutches and she would serve equally well as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But isn’t that the intention of allegory: to provide the audience with stark and definitive social stencils?
As for David Zak’s direction and the matter of ensemble performance, I can only shrug. Zak certainly pulls a lot of theatrical elements together into a coherent style, and his cast uniformly reflects that style. It’s professional, it’s respectable, Mr. Bluebird sits on its shoulder. Then why do I wish I’d brought my Walkman?
Look, this is a musical, right? You want to see a musical? Fine. Lots of people want to see musicals. If they didn’t, the people who write musicals wouldn’t ransack world literature from Oedipus Rex to Huckleberry Finn in order to come up with grist for the mill. Some musicals are profound, some aren’t. Yet any way you cut it, you want them to fork over some singing and dancing.
Well, when you have performers dancing on crutches, you’re not in for anything resembling Chorus Line, so some memorable tunes would be in order. That’s the problem–I can’t vividly recall a single decibel of melody. A few lyrics here and there, but no showstoppers. I’m left with a vague, Muzak impression of something like Pippin as sung by Polish dockworkers on strike. Very downbeat, and serious as a crutch. The best is “Sugar Candy Mountain,” a religious promise of better times in the afterlife. And the worst is “Twenty-Seven Ribbons,” a bittersweet ode to the pathetic tokens bestowed upon the willing slave, which constitutes, artistically, a regrettable lapse into that maudlin sentimentality that does cruel things to your digestive tract. Otherwise, Adrian Mitchell’s lyrics and Richard Peaslee’s music blandly (and redundantly) underscore the Stalinist theme in Orwell’s fairy tale. Brecht and Weill they’re not. And this doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing that most people go to musicals for.
No, I’m not going to divulge the plot, because that’s the only remaining reason to see Animal Farm–as an alternative to reading the book. It’s one or the other in this case, and comparison is definitely not flattering to the musical version. If the production picked up on some slack in the novel, it would be different. For example, take The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The film was simply luscious in the way that it set the scene and put flesh on the characters. The book didn’t do that for me. But the film lacked, woefully, the philosophy and perspective in Milan Kundera’s novel. So the film and book work together well. Bailiwick’s Animal Farm only shrinks the novel to fit the stage.
Some things, I suppose, are better left to the imagination. I’m still trying to imagine Orwell in the audience. Would he have been insulted or amused by his program credit? “His efforts to combine artistic and political purposes were best achieved in his two most famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984 [comma missing] which assure his literary fame.” What’s fame got to do with it? I’m sure he had more on his mind at the time than Jeff citations. And if his “purposes were best achieved” in the form of a novel, why settle for second best?
I can’t see Orwell’s face, but I can see those talking pigs. They don’t sing and dance, and they sure as hell don’t need crutches. I see them the way they appeared to me 20 years ago when I first read Animal Farm. I see them kicking ass. I see them in the news and out of the corner of my eye. And nothing I see onstage quite compares with that.