Animals rule in Orwell classic

For a vivid theatrical lesson in 20th-century history, youths and their parents need to head over to Red Deer College. The Russian Revolution and Stalin’s corruption of lofty Communist ideals have never been as entertainingly — and chillingly — presented as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

For a vivid theatrical lesson in 20th-century history, youths and their parents need to head over to Red Deer College.

The Russian Revolution and Stalin’s corruption of lofty Communist ideals have never been as entertainingly — and chillingly — presented as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

And Theatre Studies students are presenting a stand-up stage version of Orwell’s novel at the RDC Arts Centre’s Studio A. The show that opened Wednesday night and runs through Saturday was adapted by Peter Hall.

It’s no surprise that director Lynda Adams discovered Hall’s script in the education section in the RDC library. For anyone who hasn’t read Animal Farm, (or who only grudgingly read it in English class), will come to appreciate, through this musical play, Orwell’s smart allegory about one of Europe’s most infamous political movements.

In this production with 29 songs, an aged boar named Old Major (standing in for Marx/Lenin) provides inspirational words that fuel an animal rebellion against drunken, irresponsible farmer Jones.

After the farmer forgets to feed his livestock, the pigs lead the charge, promising other animals a voice in how things are run on the farm, and equal proceeds from collective labours.

A rivalry soon develops between idealistic porker Snowball (Leon Trotsky), and a power-hungry pig named Napoleon, who represents self-serving despot Joseph Stalin.

The second half of the play takes place after Snowball is run off the farm, and is much more gripping than the first half. Napoleon’s rise to dominance corresponds with the other animals’ near-starvation rations and loss of rights and freedoms.

There’s an ominous scene in which some of the livestock, coerced into making confessions, are quite literally thrown to the dogs. While their fate happens off stage, it’s suggested with sound effects that might be too intense for very young children. (But then, this play’s political implications are more suited to ages 12 and up).

The action, which takes place in a versatile farmyard, designed by Anton de Groot, moves along quite well under Adams’ direction.

Although the songs in this play aren’t particularly catchy, they are short. And while the students’ voices are variable, there’s a live soundtrack performed by music director/pianist Morgan McKee, drummer Rob Goodwin, bassist Curtis Phagoo and guitarist Ryan Marchant.

A few characterizations need amping up (most notably Snowball’s lacking charisma), but others are memorable — including Napoleon’s second-in-command pig Squealer, poetic Bolshevik pig Minimus, wisely skeptical donkey Benjamin, loyal labouring horse Boxer, vain mare Mollie, and apathetic cat.

The young actors, who wear headgear designed by Donna Jopp suggestive of their animals’ appearance, generally do a good job of conveying animistic behavior through voice and body language — especially the chickens, goat and dog.

Congratulations to the first-year cast of Michael Bentley, Maggie Chisholm, Tanner Chubb, Veronika Fodor, Sara Fowlow, Ryan Garbutt, Theo Grandjambe, Kira Kirkland, Paul Kusmire, Vanessa McCagg, Ronnie McLean, Jelena Minshall, Stuart Old, Taylor Osiowy, Amy Peters, Chonteal Ramsey, Mike Richards, Tiana Williston, and Thomas Zima.

The years have not softened the powerful impact of Orwell’s story. In fact, Hall adds his own political messages about factory farming that might make some audience members re-think the whole meat-at-every-meal thing.

The subversive Orwell would likely have approved.

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