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Organic “Animal Farm” Quasimondo’s ensemble work illuminates a classic

Pigs is pigs
Pigs is pigs
Leo Pilak, Milwaukee Wedding Fusion Photography

Animal Farm by Quasimondo Theatre

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You’re standing outside a barn at Trimborn Farm, an impeccably-restored 19th-century farmstead. It’s 8:00, but it’s July, so it’s still light. Across the drive, a long-haired man in boxer shorts and a flapping bathrobe stumbles out of the brick house, shouting incoherently. Crossing to a nearby stump, he pantomimes having breakfast: cereal and whisky. He hastily milks a nearby cow and dumps the whole milk-pail on his Wheaties. A crow flaps over and lands on his shoulder. A string trio strikes up some rustic, rootsy music, and we all head into the barn. So begins Animal Farm as rowdily but respectfully adapted by the endlessly inventive Quasimondo Theatre.

A lot of companies would be cowed by George Orwell’s grim tale, but these artists aren’t chicken: with dogged perseverance and a little horsing around, they goose the story into a compelling piece of theater. The neigh-sayers look pretty sheepish; let them eat crow. I’d be a swine to say otherwise.

Bad puns aside, Orwell’s political fable is nobody’s idea of a fun book (as I child I found the cartoon version too depressing to watch). A thinly-veiled allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, it’s heavy-duty stuff, tracing how the Communist Worker’s Party inexorably degraded from egalitarian idealism to gross oligarchy. It’s a priceless lesson for revolutionaries of all colors, torn from history—but not normally considered a fun night out. How amazing, then, that the can-do company creates an exhilarating evening of vivid pageantry, colorful characterizations, humor, drama, and big ideas. Director Brian Rott has anchored their improvisational explorations in Orwell’s tight, well-told narrative; narration and dialog are lifted directly from the book, which we sometimes actually see in magic-lantern projections.

Farmer Jones, played with louche abandon by Ben Yela, is the worst farmer ever: petty and vindictive, he drunkenly neglects and abuses the animals, who are portrayed by beautifully-rendered life-sized paper-mache and wire puppets, manipulated so that we can see both actors and puppets. After Jones exits, a monstrous hog face, like a porcine great and powerful Oz, delivers a speech to the animals (it doesn’t look like Karl Marx, but it’s an obvious stand-in), exhorting them to rise up against the two-legged oppressor and take control of the farm for themselves.

The old swine, we’re told, passes away, though his demonic-looking skull continues to haunt the proceedings. The movement is taken up by three little pigs. One of them, Snowball, the idealist, passionately believes in her vision of a farm where all four-legs pass ideal lives of fulfilling work and happy leisure (in a funny committee meeting it’s determined that the chicken’s wings are “propulsive limbs,” and therefore count as legs). The animals bond together, despite their differences, through symbols, slogans, and a patriotic song called “Beasts of England,” which they burst into whenever things get a little dicey. A pig named Napoleon, who is more practical and less concerned with equality, pushes his way to the top, recruiting accomplices who hog the best food for themselves on the pretext “to each according to his needs.” Before you can say “Trotsky,” Snowball is driven off and accused of treason; while Napoleon creates a Stalin-like regime where the animals toil harder and harder for the benefit of the privileged pigs, who “deserve” their luxuries for taking on the harrowing duties of leadership.

It might be surprising how anti-revolutionary the story is—haters of communism will find plenty to nod along with. But, as the pigs accrue more and more wealth and power by cleverly deceiving the honest, gullible workers, the farm grows to resemble any two-tier society, including, oh, maybe even—our own? Quasimondo’s adaptation lets the story speak for itself, while illustrating it with a wondrous wealth of theatrical devices.

The production design is pretty near perfect: they scored hugely by finding an actual barn: the century-old wooden beams lend an authenticity impossible to get for any money. Rott’s costumes and Andrew Parchman’s puppets look fantastic under lighting wizard Edward Winslow’s ingenious lighting design: a trio of scary dogs has blue lights in their mouths, making their nighttime hunt of Snowball visually thrilling. The sculptural puppets are neither too literal nor too abstract, full of character when brought to life by the actors. The original score, by Ben Yela and his three cohorts, is lively, bittersweet and satirical, setting the mood for a simple time becoming more and more complex.

The ensemble works like one body, though there are of course a few standouts: the reliably excellent Jessi Miller captures Snowball’s passionate idealism and charisma, while, as Napoleon, Kirk Thompson hits all the stops from wheedling to brutal (and gives an uncannily authentic oink). Michael Petit’s years of puppetry experience pay off in the role of a feisty hen, and both he and a chap named “Skrauss” chew their roles as covetous farmer barons with great gusto. Emma Kate brings a dancer’s grace to the role of a horse who abandons the movement; Michael Guthrie, as the workhorse Boxer, captures the essence of the stolid, if none-too-bright British laborer. And as Moses the Raven, Andrew Parchman leads the barnyard in a rousing gospel number, a wickedly sharp satire of religion as the masses’ opiate.

The show grinds a bit towards the end, as the animals try again and again to complete a windmill, getting more exhausted while the pigs live in greater luxury. And not everyone would appreciate the postscript, when the actors lead the audience into a nearby horse barn and herd them (like animals!) through narrow passages into a cell-like pen, while gnomic scenes of animal cruelty play out in the stalls. This proves the company’s integrity; it’s not enough for us to see a jolly puppet show; the epilog brings the lesson home, giving us a taste of the other side of human/animal relations. This is possibly the strongest Quasimondo show yet, so it’s a great pity that there are no more performances.

For a dark satire of human folly in microcosm, it’s amazing how much joy is here. And they challenge the book’s send-up of “mutual assistance” by working together beautifully, for no money and little glory. Uncle Leon would be proud.