Trying to find a message keeps The Rep’s “Animal Farm” stuck ion the barn

It is perhaps fitting that the lingering feeling after watching the Orwellian production of “Animal Farm” at The Rep was one of theatrical dystopia.

For anyone who had some trouble with vocabulary tests in high school, “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia. It’s finding yourself in a place where you would rather be anywhere else.

That’s kind of the reaction to this production, directed with some confusion by May Adrales, who is also a Rep Associate Artistic Director.

Ms. Adrales is committed, as she points out in her Director Notes, to her “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

If that is something she truly believes, then she must find other ways to pursue that goal than to try and steer a dated and stereotypical 90-minute journey into the hearts and minds of an audience.

The book, published in 1945 is Orwell’s allegory for the events leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the rise of Joseph Stalin to power. The book is a popular one for students, both middle school and high school. But, by the time they get to college, it’s fair to say that this simplistic novel has lost a lot of its cachet.

So, too, has any relevance to the world (much less the United States) today. Our proletariat isn’t staging revolts. Sure, they’d like better jobs and more money and less crime, but nobody is in full rebellion.  The story of “Animal Farm” is a historic one but one that is lost on any adult paying attention these days.

If Ms. Adrales and The Rep were looking for an Orwell adaptation to stage, they might well have been much better off with the stage adaptation of “1984.” That novel enjoyed a surge in bestseller lists after the “alternative facts” speech came out of President Trump’s camp.

The stage adaptation had a successful five-month limited run on Broadway last year and is enjoying success touring the world.

The production at The Rep that opened Friday night is either too full or too empty, depending on what you expect out of a night at the theater.

It’s too full of gimmicks, like crazy costumes with heads that designate various members of the revolting animals (that is an action adjective, not a descriptive one).

It’s too full of manufactured shock, like the scene near the end when Squealer dispatches a variety of “traitor” animals with particularly gruesome special effects.

It’s too full of effort. Ms. Adrales is just trying too hard to make this play important.

But it’s too empty of any kind of clarity that might actually let someone follow the bouncing ball and find something to latch on to.

For a drama, it’s way too empty of drama. This is a play that has “OBVIOUS” stamped across its forehead and nobody wants to spend good money to go somewhere where there are no surprises.

It could be that all the work of a cast of wonderful actors and some great and interesting designs were undone by a failure to find a story.

Dedication to inspiring dialogue and getting people to think about their world is just fine.

But the first, and most important, commitment for any director needs to be a dedication to the story.

That’s what’s missing in The Rep’s”Animal FArm.”

“Animal Farm” runs through February 11.

Production credits: Director, May Adrales; Scenic Designer, Andrew Boyce; Costume Designer, Izumi Inaba; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Design and Original Composition, Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts; Movement Director, Nancy Lemenager; Casting Director, Frank Honts, NY Casting, McCorkle Casting; Stage Manager, Jacqueline Singleton; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow.

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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