Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2005

Although MASS MoCA brings some really exciting cutting-edge theatre to the Berkshires, I seldom review the productions because they generally only run for one or two performances. I don’t just write to hear myself type, I write to advise the public on how to invest their entertainment dollars. Frankly, I feel like a rat telling people: “There was a great show at MASS MoCA last night, and you missed it” but that is exactly what I am about to do.

From the moment that I first read about that the Synapse Productions’ puppet version of the Royal National Theatre’s musical based on George Orwell’s 1946 classic Animal Farm was coming to MoCA, and coming in December when all the world is awhirl with Sugar Plum Fairies, I was excited. The advance buzz on the show, and on this production in particular, was phenomenal. And it was playing five miles from my home! How cool was that? Very cool indeed.

The musical was created in 1984 for England’s Royal National Theatre by its then-artistic directors, Peter Hall and Adrian Mitchell, in collaboration with composer Richard Peaslee. The show was staged with unadorned human actors, and it generated enough excitement that I heard about it across the pond.

With Hall and Mitchell’s permission, David Travis, Associate Director and Co-Founder of the New York City-based Synapse Productions, has restaged their script and Peaslee’s score using live actors utilizing a full range of puppet styles. The production debuted in 2004 in conjunction with a stage version of 1984 as part of Synapse’s Orwell Project. Travis was drawn to work with puppets because they “are so simple and honest and easily duped.” Animal Farm marks two firsts for Travis – it’s the first musical he’s ever directed and the first time he’s worked with puppets. This is a successful maiden voyage on both accounts.

These are no little sock puppets. Each animal, beautifully designed and executed by Emily DeCola and Eric Wright, is more or less life size. One actor is transformed into a draft horse whose ears reach 7 feet off the ground, and another actor morphs into a petite and fluffy pair of hens. The actors are fully visible inside or beside their alter egos. Each puppet or mask is a work of art, and the actors rehearsed in a mirrored room so that they could see how to manipulate their bodies and their puppet extensions in the most lifelike manner. The results are amazing and delightful.

I would refer you to the many excellent press releases and preview articles written about this production:
The Berkshire Eagle
The Williams Record
The Advocate
The North Adams Transcript
Press Release

And to the Synapse Productions Web site where you can learn more about the genesis of the show and see some photos of the wonderful puppets. I will give some written descriptions of the latter, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

I doubt that there is an American adult who has not been required to read Orwell’s Animal Farm at some point in his or her schooling. This stage version keeps the plot intact. The animals on Manor Farm successfully rebel against their human owner and establish their own communal style of government, led by the pigs, on the rechristened Animal Farm. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the pigs soon become even more onerous overlords than the humans ever were. Along the way there are startlingly contemporary examples of how the ruling class manipulates the information it feeds to the masses to further its own end.

Here ten actors portray all the characters, two-legged and four-legged. The Animal Farm menagerie consists of the big draft horse Boxer (Matthew Summersgill), and two riding horses, Clover (Connie Hall) and the vain and pampered Mollie (Sara Montgomery). The three pigs who lead the rebellion – Napoleon (Will O’Hare who also doubles as Farmer Jones), Squealer (Ben Spradley), and the ill-fated Snowball (Jeff Lepine) – are aided by Montgomery in a secondary turn as a pack of vicious dogs, and a syncophatic young piglet named Minimus (Lepine again). Dax Valdes is the elderly three-legged donky, Benjamin. Melanie Wehrmacher appears as both a pair of cows and a pair of hens, and Morgen Peck embodies an entire herd of sheep. The book is written in the omnipotent third person, who Travis imagines as a nameless narrator rat (Aaron Mostkoff Unger).

The puppeteers portraying the horses and cows wear their characters hindquarters and legs like backpacks, while their own legs and torso serve as the front legs and chest. The animal’s neck is represented by a thin arching strand of metal or plastic, which attaches to the open framed head that the puppeteers manipulate with a rod. The pliable filament of the neck allows the head to move and turn in a very lifelike manner, and each puppet’s face is adorned with soulful eyes, none more so than Boxer’s.

The hens are handheld dolls, the sheep are built on the frame of a baby stroller pushed by the perpetually perpendicular Peck, and the rat is a rod puppet with wheels for back legs whose sinuous body is made of a piece of malleable rubber.

As the pigs O’Hare, Jones, and Spradley reveal the most humanity (the word is not used in a positive context here) and wear only snouts and tails, but they carry their hands in the Star Trek Vulcan “Live Long and Prosper” position with the pinky and ring fingers together and the index and middle fingers together and a wide gap between the middle and ring fingers. With their thumbs tucked under, this hand position gave a perfect impression of a pig’s cloven trotter, especially when cast in shadow against the back wall.

There are no weak links in this cast, but as puppeteers Unger and Montgomery are stand-outs. Unger IS the rat, and vice versa. Montgomery is the epitome of equine pulchritude as Mollie. Many years ago I knew a little black filly named Amity Good who held the same outlook on life and her own starring role in it as Mollie does, and if Mollie hadn’t been a white filly I would have sworn she was Amity reincarnated. Peck is also delightful as all those sheep. She, Hall, and Valdes boast the strongest singing voices.

Peaslee has not turned Animal Farm into a cock-eyed optimist-type American musical, and that is a very good thing. Orwell, the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), was a Brit through and through. Peaslee has created a score much more in the early 20th century European style of Kurt Weill. There are no big production numbers, no tap-dancing pigs or high-kickin’ chickens. Most of the songs are either appropriately communal group numbers or soul-baring solos.

Every generation sees itself in this tale, which Orwell subtitled a fairy story. In the role of Napoleon, the pig who ultimately comes to rule Animal Farm, actor O’Hare made obvious references to our current president, George W. Bush. A man sitting behind me, whose mother had never taught him not to speak in the theatre while the show is in progress, announced loudly that Spradley, as the designated spokes-pig Squealer, reminded him of Karl Rove. I personally saw many parallels to the Nazi rise to power and the holocaust, but, while those events were certainly happening concurrently with Orwell’s creation of the story, it is universally agreed that he had the 1917 Russian Revolution in mind while writing.

I saw the full-length two-hour long version of this show. Synapse also tours a one-hour version which it markets to school groups. My one complaint is that marketing to younger audience members. Animal Farm is not a story for small children. Any child old enough to read and enjoy the book, which I would imagine would be children no younger than 9 or 10, can certainly see the show, but Synapse encourages children as young as 5 to attend and bills this as “family entertainment.” This is no Disney extravaganza. It is Animal Farm – a scary and disturbing political allegory that is best enjoyed by people old enough to have full discussions about the ideas it raises.

Go to the Synapse Productions Web site for more information about their touring production of Animal Farm: The Puppet Musical. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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