Photo: Poster for the play
You may have read it, you certainly have heard about it and we may be living it. Now is your chance to see it on stage as the Belmont High School Performing Arts Company presents an adaptation of George Orwell’s story “Animal Farm” in three performances Nov. 7-9 at 7 p.m. at the Belmont High School auditorium.
- Adults: $12 advance sale/$15 at the door.
- Children/students: $5 Thursday/$10 Friday and Saturday
- Belmont High Students: $5.
Tickets are available at Champions Sports in Belmont Center or online at bhs-pac.org
From an allegorical novella by George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) Animal Farm demonstrates that best intentions could lead to bad consequences: after staging a successful revolution against their human masters, a group of farm animals establishes a communal society, only to see it devolve into the corrupt regime of a power-hungry dictator.
Remember: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”
The play resonates with many of the issues the world faces today: the rise of totalitarianism and demagoguery, massive wealth inequality, gaslighting propaganda and fake news, cults of popularity disguised as populism, and the use of violence to solve problems. But the play grounds these topics in a vivid immediate reality. And while the book was clearly an allegory about the rise of Stalinism when it was originally written, the story feels eerily contemporary.
The production does not attempt to shoehorn the play into one particular interpretation or historical setting, according to PAC’s director Ezra Flam.
“The surprise of the show is not what happens, but how you get there,” noted Flam. How do good people let bad things happen – and even participate in making decisions that go against their own interests, challenge their self-concepts, or actually violate their memories and their grip on reality?
The play takes place on the Manor farm, where the alcoholic human farmer Mr. Jones has been mistreating the animals and mismanaging the farm. At the urging of Old Major, a boar held in high esteem by the animals, the residents of the farm take matters into their own hands, oust Mr. Jones, and rename the farm “Animal Farm.” Led by two young pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, the new community establishes a society built on egalitarian principles, universal education, and long-missing economic efficiency.
But soon the elation of their utopia gives way to doctrinal squabbles, propaganda fights, and vicious power plays, and everyone scrambles to choose the right side or be swept away by the tide of corruption growing in the center of their idyllic community.
By the end of the play, one of the early leaders has been banished, kangaroo courts have sent many innocent people to their deaths, and the farm has turned out worse than it ever was under the misguided administration of the humans.
In his notes of the show. Flam said this production showcases what the Performing Arts Company does best: give actors and stage crew the chance to learn about theater by creating a fully realized production.
Making the show happen has engaged the efforts of more than just the cast of 26 actors. More than 75 students are part of the backstage crew: building and painting scenery, making costumes, creating lighting and sound effects, constructing props and working as production assistants.
But Animal Farm has called on even more than the usual set of skills.
The actors and crew must tell a story that exists on multiple levels, said Flam. The cast must tell a deeply allegorical story that decries totalitarianism both in its Stalinist expression but which echoes into the current day. For example, they were both schooled in Soviet history and watched videos of Brexit arguments in Parliament to prepare for their roles.)
They must enact vicious moment-by-moment power plays, oppression, and experiences of terror, all while thoroughly respecting their fellow actors. And they must tell this harrowing story in the guise of farm animals – and not as they might portray a cow in the stable of a Christmas play, but in a way that captures the nuances of animal characteristics without devolving into caricature.
“They can’t just play a horse like you might in fourth grade,” Flam explains. “The actors need to do a play that tells a story on the surface but underneath tells deeper stories.” Whether pig, sheep, or horse, the actors must tell a profoundly human story.
Likewise, the production crew has worked diligently to help create the world of the story. The students on the costumes crew, under the guidance of Costume Designer Lila West and in conjunction with the actors themselves, have created a wealth of costumes that evoke rather than explicitly depict animals. Through costume pieces and improvised movement, the cast and crew create a world of animals without yielding to literal representation.
Meanwhile, the collaborative efforts of the cast and student set crew, led by Scenic Designer Anna Moss and Technical Director Ian O’Malley, have produced a set that evokes a farm but allows the audience to grasp the timeless themes of the story.