George Orwell's "Animal Farm" derives much of its power from the contrast between a simple little fable about animals and the biting satire this fable conveys.
In the opening production of its fourth season, the Bowman Ensemble maximizes this power by contrasting an almost naive, childlike theatrical approach with Orwell's sophisticated message about the corruption of power.
J. Marshall Walker's set design consists primarily of a small, square barnyard covered with mulch, and the main elements in Brian Chetelet's costume designs are T-shirts bearing the names of the animals (with the noted exception of the hens' shirts, which bear the name of their labor union: "Egg Makers Local"). These extremely basic costumes prove especially versatile for the actors with multiple roles. For example, an actress who plays a cat, a sheep and a hen makes the transitions merely by donning the appropriate T-shirt.
The script that the Bowman Ensemble is using was adapted by Sir Peter Hall and includes songs composed by Richard Peaslee with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell. Baltimore theatergoers may remember this show from the 1986 Theatre of Nations festival, when a production by the National Theatre of Great Britain was withdrawn from the official program following Soviet protests.
At the time, the controversy surrounding "Animal Farm" -- which was presented at the Mechanic Theatre apart from festival auspices -- turned out to be far more dramatic than the production itself. However, Bowman's rendition benefits from a surprising discovery; Orwell's allegory comes across more forcefully when performed by younger, less-experienced actors than by Britain's slick professionals.
C. Russell Muth's direction and Bruce R. Nelson's choreography reinforce the inherent simplicity of this story about animals who run the farmer off his farm and operate it under an equal rights system which they dub "Animalism," and which rapidly deteriorates into a dictatorship.
When the animals build a windmill, the actors mime the finished structure by moving in a circle with their arms outstretched. And even though the final scene -- when the tyrannical pigs become indistinguishable from their human enemies -- utilizes the same device used by the National Theatre, somehow it seems more chilling here. Since the pigs are the only characters wearing masks, Orwell's cautionary conclusion is suggested by merely removing the masks.
Admittedly, there are a few instances where a little more polish would help. Although Peaslee's anthem-like compositions don't make strenuous musical demands, the lack of trained voices is distracting. The only performers who shine vocally are Kelly Hutcheson as the vain filly, Mollie, who sings a pretty number about her love of ribbons and sugar, and Michael Stebbins as the despotic pig, Napoleon, who has a biographical music hall-style song, which he delivers with a hint of Jimmy Durante.
But the Bowman Ensemble gets far more right than wrong, both in terms of the overall picture and such details as the sheep talking in unison or the pigs separating their fingers like cloven hoofs.
Incidentally, "Animal Farm" is presented outdoors, and with the mercury soaring above 100 these days, it calls to mind the phrase, "sweats like a pig." I always doubted that pigs actually sweat. In this case I can assure you they do, but they're sweating in service of a darned good production.
Where: Child's Memorial, McDonogh School, 8600 McDonogh Road, Owings Mills
When: 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, July 14-18 and 22-24
Tickets: $10 (Tickets to tomorrow's gala are $35)
Call: (410) 889-0406