You’re probably tired of hearing about vintage literary works that seem more relevant than ever. After all, the great ones will always speak in one way or another to contemporary issues, decade after decade. But let’s face it. Some pieces just scream “timely” louder than others, especially right now in our strained and volatile world.
George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” sure fits the bill, as Baltimore Center Stage reminds us with a skillful, tautly performed adaptation of the 1945 anti-totalitarian novel. This classic resonates as loudly and clearly as ever. It still stings, too.
The Stalin-esque Napoleon, a pig who gravitates to the head of the pack when the downtrodden animals successfully chase the humans off the farm, hardly sounds confined to allegorical fiction when he declares: “Bravery is not enough. Loyalty and obedience are more important.”
A fresh twinge of recognition can be set off, too, when Comrade Napoleon’s minions pop up to heap praise on his “calm and commanding eye,” or recite statistics ostensibly proving everything is better since he assumed power, or discard previously accepted facts whenever convenient.
By the time the most famous, purely Orwellian line in the book crops up — “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” — distinctions between past and present, fantasy and reality, pretty much evaporate.
Adapted by Ian Wooldridge, this theatrical “Animal Farm” preserves the book’s primary points and targets, packing everything into one roughly 90-minute act.
Director May Adrales keeps those minutes flowing at a fairly brisk pace and effectively underlines the scenes that give the story its greatest tension and discomfort. (One minor quibble: It feels clunky, not to mention unnecessary, to have an actor say the title of the play and the author at the start.)
A co-venture with Milwaukee Repertory Theater using that company’s forces, the staging has an aptly raw quality, starting with a grim scenic design by Andrew Boyce that conjures up more of a white-tiled butchery than a farm. (Warning: Stuffed animals are graphically harmed in this production.)
Izumi Inabi costumes actors in dingy jump suits; puppet-style animal heads and a few other props help distinguish the characters (the eight cast members tackle multiple assignments).
Melvin Abston does suitably imposing work as Napoleon, gradually revealing the leader’s duplicity and cruelty with deft strokes.
Carrying a large share of the show is Tiffany Rachelle Stewart. She struts about engagingly as Mollie, the revolution-averse horse with a thing for ribbons and sugar. Assuming a creepy deadpan, Stewart proves even more effective as the swine Squealer, the crafty, villainous chief propagandist of the human-free farm.
There are vibrant contributions from Brendan Titley, as Napoleon’s valiant porcine rival Snowball, and Jonathan Gillard Daly, who fleshes out the role of an insightful old donkey with particular flair.
Providing the work’s emotional heart and soul is Deborah Staples as Clover, whose horse sense allows her to see what others can’t amid the pigs’ cruel rule — “It seems to me our lives are just the same as they have always been,” she says. But such thinking puts her at increasing risk in a world where conformity is king.
No one conforms more eagerly than Clover’s equine pal Boxer, the embodiment of Napoleon’s base, ever-ready, even when confronted with damning evidence that contradicts the party line, to fall back on the mantra: “Comrade Napoleon says it, so it must be right.”
Stephanie Weeks gives an astute performance of the gullible Boxer that generates a good deal of pathos. At the start of the play, Weeks also proves effective in the role of Major, the old pig who offers the initial vision of the revolution, but doesn’t live to see how badly her ideals get twisted.