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Theatre Review (Buffalo, NY): Occupy Animal Farm by Justin Karcher at The Subversive Theatre Collective

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I’d forgotten what a great story George Orwell’s Animal Farm is. I remember reading it in elementary school and the teacher went to great lengths to explain that the love declared between male pigs Napoleon and Snowball, the leaders of an animal revolution, was NOT the same as the love between a man and a woman. It was more brotherly and certainly not sexual.

The Subversive Theatre Collective, a feisty and tireless political theatre group working out of an old Pierce-Arrow automobile plant in Buffalo, New York is presenting Occupy Animal Farm, an original play based on Orwell’s allegorical novella about a political revolution among animals on a farm. Here, there is little doubt Napoleon and Snowball (Jeffrey Coyle and Jonathan Shuey) are gay pigs frolicking in the mud, plotting revolution and very much in love.

They are self-proclaimed leaders of the revolution after convincing the other farm animals that pigs are the smartest of the animal kingdom. Early in the play while scheming to take control of the farm, Napoleon unexpectedly announces to Snowball, “I love you.” It’s a funny scene with a finely executed dead beat that caught the audience unaware as if responding, “Did we hear that right?”

I was reminded that the book was a real page-turner, and the integrity of Orwell’s vision, a cleverly comic fable with totalitarian thunderclouds threatening a socialist agenda, is intact in writer Justin Karcher’s original work, which leans heavily on the humor while never relaxing the muscle that gives the story dramatic weight, even suspense.

Director Drew McCabe incorporates several unlikely theatrical forms into the proceedings: chaotic chase scenes set to the tune of a wacky slapstick soundtrack (think Benny Hill); audience participation that never quite catches on (this only works when the audience is enraptured); and dance choreography (yes, not only do these animals talk, they dance) to Justin John Smith’s original, bizarre, and finally memorable music that combines rock and Hindustani influences. The closing dance with the entire cast, a morphing of modern and Asian-Indian dance forms by choreographer Jenny Kulwicki, is strangely effective while having seemingly nothing to do with Animal Farm.

The actors work their tails off. While it would have been more visually fulfilling if the farmyard had several more animals in it – a sheep here, a cow there, everywhere a goat-goat – the seven actors, donning masquerade-like animal masks and sometimes in multiple roles, express graceful acrobatic animal gestures while never hee-hawing the production into farce.

Marie Droz as Mollie, the young horse indifferent to the political revolution and longing for the lazy days of hand-fed sugar cubes and pretty mane ribbons (“No one wants to RIDE me anymore!”), bellies a perfect counterpart of desire to the gang mentality of revolution, as she sashays her way across the farmyard as if on her way to visit Mr. Ed. Brian Zybala as Boxer the work horse masters the sound of a horse snorting (he also does a fine chicken strut in a second role), and, like the hard laborer, is the backbone of this production in a strong sympathetic performance as the genuine believer in political change.

Technical difficulties hampered the show on its second night with one long moment in darkness where nothing happened but a dead stage. The decision to put the only human character in a mask (Matt Kindly as Farmer Jones) lent the stage a bit of confusion as the actor played multiple roles in various masks.

At home after the theatre I looked through my books to see if I had a copy of Animal Farm. I need to occupy it again. That is the measure of the success of this production.

Animal Farm plays through December 18 at The Manny
Fried Playhouse in the old Pierce-Arrow automobile plant in Buffalo, New York. For more information call 716-408-0499.

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