NKU’s Animal Farm Draws Parallels Between Stalin and High School
Posted On June 26, 2017
Review by Shawn Maus of Animal Farm: NKU
The high school classroom provides the atmosphere for George Orwell’s blistering satire on power and idealism. Animal Farm, written by George Orwell in 1945, has been a standard text in schools in western civilization since it was first published.
According to Orwell, the book reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Orwell was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism. The Soviet Union, he believed, had become a brutal dictatorship, built upon a cult of personality and enforced by a reign of terror.
Director Charlie Roetting has placed the action within a high school classroom, a fitting setting since this is the production that gives the cast–entirely made up of the freshman class at NKU–an opportunity to show the talent that didn’t find its way into the main stage season.
George Orwell’s satire has given the world at least one immortal phrase: “Some are more equal than others.” The animals on a farm drive out their master and take over and run the farm for themselves. The experiment is successful, except that someone has to take the overthrown farmer’s place. Leadership devolves upon the pigs, which are cleverer than the rest of the animals. Unfortunately, their character is not equal to their intelligence.
The story of the nefarious doings of the hooved stand-ins for Stalin and Trotsky and how they and their compatriots overthrow the farmer and try to turn Manor Farm into a cooperative, but fail, is faithfully brought to life in Wooldridge’s adaptation. This production under Roetting’s direction, does justice to the adaptation.
And while there is probably too much narrative taken directly from the book, staged and spoken directly to the audience, Roetting divided the roles into several. Old Major was played by three actors and other characters were divided up amongst the 30-plus cast.
The simple but effective costuming of each animal as a “classification” of the high school sect – humans being the educators, pigs as student council, goths, jocks and the like – works well fitting with the overall simple style of the black box theatre space. I found it particularly inspired that the play was set in the 1980s – clearly an homage to Orwell’s other novel, 1984.
While energy levels fluctuate between the actors, some were more equal than others. But, remember, this is production of freshman students, many of whom are just beginning to learn the craft of their career without the distractions of the high school theatre scene,and other high school studies that really don’t interest the creative types.
The challenge of playing animals didn’t work as clearly as the challenge of playing high school animals. Mathew Nassida as Squealer (or should I say the lead Squealer since four other actors helped to break up what could have been very long monologues) succeeds in his creation of a human character with nerdy characteristics reminiscent of “Revenge of the Nerds.” Nassida also provided original music which is a perfect underscore for the play. Sally Modzelewski, as Napoleon, is also compelling and appropriately sinister. Her portrayal of the dictator is in fact a bit scary with a Sharon Stone-like quality, but we see her rise to power and her descent into the dangerous underworld of lies and murder with a psychological depth that says this freshman is one to watch. Camden Dougherty’s Boxer blends the pathos needed from the workhorse just trying to maintain the status quo. Levi Daugherty’s Moses definitely leads the burnouts to and with Sugar Candy Mountain, and his comedic technique is highlighted by his perfect timing.
Animal Farm tells a story, but allegory, when transferred to the stage, requires a little more interpretation to have an impact. A lot is left up to the script, which just is not quite up to the job. Animal Farm offers a fun evening, but lacks either theatrical spectacle or a truly coherent message.
Nevertheless, this is a play largely carried by its acting talent, and it is particularly refreshing to see some lesser-known faces on the stage. For now, I’m just happy to enjoy the quality of acting and the promising dramatic talent that the production profiles.