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“I think the choice of pigs will no doubt give offence to many people,” sniffed a publisher who accepted, then turned down (after government pressure) George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.” Though the novel’s original, allegedly touchy Soviet targets are gone, the story still has teeth nearly 60 years later. Toiling at the mercy of their porcine comrades-cum-masters, the beasts on the supposedly communal farm encounter a coup d’état, trumped-up evidence, and a chipping away of bedrock precepts.
In the Orwell Project’s vigorous adaptation (which alternates at the Connelly with their multimedia staging of 1984), Darius Stone gives top hog Napoleon a thick Southern accent, incongruous with the otherwise British setting, but useful in pointing out how close the air of dictatorship has become. (His headgear suggests an unauthorized installment in the Cremaster cycle.) Much of the book’s original narration remains, appealingly voiced by Aaron Mostkoff Unger, who wields a nimble marionette rat. Puppet and mask designers Emily DeCola and Eric Wright have constructed a formidable menagerie: The horse costumes convey quadruped heft; like-minded sheep move about as one, wheeled on a cart by Nelson Lugo; Connie Hall holds a hen in each hand, swiftly accommodating their flustered flutterings.
“Last night it came back to me in a dream,” Old Major (Francis Kelly) tells his fellow beasts at the start, introducing his vision of a human-free society, and the best scenes here have the quality of nightmare: In the vicious inquisition sequence, fear-ridden animals confess to imagined crimes. It’s a concise bit of horror, with Napoleon’s attack dogs pulling bolts of red cloth from their victims. In terms of character, the equine department is particularly strong. Kelly McAllister convinces as the noble, ultimately pathetic workhorse Boxer, while Jenny Mercein’s ribbon-loving (read: bourgeois) mare Mollie has a beguiling canter and a bead on vanity—as when, after her introduction to the alphabet, she retains only the letters she needs to spell her name, marking each one with her hoof.
The stage bustles with invention: Silhouettes occasionally move across a scrim; banners unfurl from a balcony; songs, perhaps too many, are sung; at one point, a shotgun unloads, and a puppeteer slowly moves a stick (on which the discharge is attached by stiff wires) for a clever, low-tech dose of Matrix-brand bullet time. But Orwell’s novella is indelible for its surface simplicity—political critique translated into the language and lightly fantastic world of a children’s book. This proves a catch-22 for director David Travis: To stage it simply would be dull, yet sometimes the Orwell Project’s fertile theatricality dilutes the power of the elegantly cynical fable.