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Review: ‘Animal Farm’ ditches clever Orwellian satire for broad comedy (Includes first-hand account)

It’s clear from Soulpepper‘s new stage adaptation of Animal Farm, which opened on Thursday, that director Ravi Jain and playwright Anthony MacMahon also saw high comedic potential in Orwell’s 1945 novella – which reworks the history of the Russian Revolution into a fable with barnyard animals. But rather than build upon the wit of the source material, this version decidedly trashes all the smart, Juvenalian social commentary and turns the story into a broader farce, complete with unsubtle allusions to more recent political controversies (Donald Trump, the Occupy movement, and so on).

That doesn’t mean Jain’s production doesn’t have its funny moments and ideas; as a talented director with a background in clowning, he knows how to milk great physical comedy out of all his performers. But in the end, this isn’t exactly what Orwell had in mind. Turns out that some Animal Farms are more equal than others.

Animal Farm, for those who need a refresher, is the tale of a farm where the animals revolt, expel their cruel human master and begin their own society, following the vision of their Karl Marx-esque boar leader, Old Major (Jennifer Villaverde). As this new animal-run utopia struggles to take shape, a power struggle emerges among the ruling pigs – between the idealistic Snowball (Sarah Wilson), who wants a fair society in which everyone gets a proper share of the benefits, and the more capitalistic and power-hungry Napoleon (Rick Roberts). “There is no society. There is only individual animals,” Napoleon proclaims at a debate over a proposed windmill, sounding less like an Orwellian manipulator than a blunt right-wing pundit.

That’s the play’s first act, which follows the book reasonably with a few liberties. It’s in the second half that MacMahon and Rain mostly toss Orwell’s story (and sly tone) right out the barn window and turn the play into part Second City revue, part The Daily Show political sketch. Much of the second act has propaganda pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandes) hosting fake news and talk shows on Animal Farm News Network, an obvious parody of FOX News; this culminates in a debate show between Napoleon and a rebelling hen that’s too long and way too talky. Supporting characters from the book get bigger roles here, including slow but hardworking horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis) and cynical donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia); there’s also a subplot about a rebellious group of chickens, or the “BOC-cuppy” movement, led by Mercy (Raquel Duffy, who’s terrific) and Poophead (Villaverde again).

(Yes, there’s a character named Poophead. She has a naughty habit of eating animal compost. Orwell gags in his grave.)

I understand the desire to make Animal Farm more immediately relevant to 2018 sensibilities, particularly since communism – the book’s underlying satirical target – isn’t as much of a thing anymore. But surely Orwell’s real target, the abuse of power through language and manipulation, is what makes the book timeless and universal? Much of what makes the novella so darkly funny (to me, at least) is the way Napoleon and Squealer keep gaslighting the other animals by secretly rewriting the rules in order to get away with their own corrupt behaviour, and how the poor animals keep failing to catch onto it. That’s gone here, because MacMahon has no interest in that sort of clever, ironic commentary; his script gives the animals a heroic dignity in recognizing their situation and trying to stand up to it. This would probably be great in a different kind of play, but Animal Farm was never meant to be a simplistic revenge comedy or a rah-rah call to action for young activists.

Admittedly, at the times when this adaptation does work, it’s a lot of fun. Ken MacKenzie’s bright animal costumes make the production feel like a really sophisticated elementary-school play (which makes the darker, more adult themes feel even more potent), and his big wooden barn set with movable front doors is an excellent visual touch. And Jain’s deft hand at physical comedy shows itself in a few hilarious set pieces, reminiscent of his fast-paced Soulpepper production of The 39 Steps in 2016; there’s a stellar sequence in which the ailing Boxer visits a raccoon doctor, played brilliantly by Michaela Washburn, whose sharp raccoon movements are dead-on perfect as she attacks a series of trash cans. (In fact, it’s fun to watch this entire cast mimic the body language of their respective animals, especially the hens.)

But even the great comedy bits feel as if they belong in a completely different show. I sat through the second half of Animal Farm wondering exactly who or what the target was supposed to be. Trump? Capitalism? Privilege? The media? Pigs? All of the above? I get the impression MacMahon and Jain are more interested in throwing out as much satire and comedy business as they can, with tacked-on references to current real-life social issues (healthcare, student loans, et cetera), just to see how much of it will stick. And it’s entertaining, but it’s not Orwell. As Winston Smith from 1984 might see it, it’s as equal to Orwell’s vision as two and two are to five.

Animal Farm runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts until April 7.

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