Without holding an official title, Carol Biederstadt has become the Orwell Society’s correspondent for the east coast of the USA.
She reports from her “weekend jaunt”, which took her to see Animal Farm on stage in historic Baltimore, and to discover that a work described by its author as a “fairy story” and a “little squib” has a more than special significance today.
“this unique production”
A Weekend Jaunt
Seeing Animal Farm in Historic Baltimore
Although his final book was published almost seventy years ago, George Orwell can’t seem to stay out of the media spotlight these days. As most recent attention has been directed at Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems only fair that the equally worthy Animal Farm, which he once self-deprecatingly referred to as a “little squib,” is now claiming some of its rightful share of the limelight. Oddly, much of the current media buzz is due to Chinese censors who recently banned online references to the novella in an apparent attempt to stem opposition to the removal of presidential term limits, a move that would allow Xi Jinping to rule China indefinitely. While the little squib’s big brother, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has also been banned, Animal Farm, a tale analogous to Xi’s bid to retain his firm grip on China, has been grabbing the lion’s – er, perhaps I should say the pig’s – share of the media attention since the ban came to light. It was sheer coincidence, however, that I first read about the ban in an article published in The Guardian just two days before the start of the March 1 – April 1 run of the Baltimore Center Stage production of Animal Farm. I had purchased tickets to the play months in advance, but the recent Chinese censorship kerfuffle added an extra layer of relevance to the weekend in Baltimore.
Photograph of Center Stage poster by Carol Biederstadt
While rich in history, problems resulting from economic changes over the past half-century continue to plague Baltimore. Once dubbed “Monument City” by John Quincy Adams, thanks to the numerous monuments and church spires adorning its skyline, Baltimore was more recently given the sadly sanguine sobriquet “The Greatest City in America,” and benches emblazoned with the motto can be seen scattered throughout the city. To be sure, the hometown loyalties of the Baltimoreans I spoke with were strong. Still, it cannot be denied that another recent moniker, “Bodymore, Murdaland,” popularized by the HBO series The Wire, contains more than just a kernel of truth. Hit hard by the demise of the steel industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the mid to late 1900s, the once proud city was left racked with poverty and crime, and one late 2017 report ranked Baltimore the fourth most dangerous city in the United States. For sure, passing the prison and block upon block of boarded up row houses as I drove along Madison Street heading into the city left me wondering whether Baltimore had been the best destination for a weekend jaunt. Fortunately, Baltimore Center Stage is in one of the better sections of town, the Mount Vernon Cultural District, a neighborhood full of historic architecture and trendy shops and restaurants.
Photograph by Carol Biederstadt
Entering the theater, which is housed in a historic building that recently underwent a $28 million renovation, I first noted that most of the venue’s 500+ seats appeared to be occupied. My front row seat afforded me a perfect view of the set, which instantly communicates the tone of Director May Adrales’s interpretation of the story. Looking less like a farm than it does an abattoir, grimy white tiles cover the lopsided walls and collapsing floor, and the few visible props are cold and industrial: wooden pallets, a steel riser, metal tables on casters, a wire cage, duct pipes, galvanized buckets, and a couple of carcasses dangling from ceiling hooks. Having seen a few productions of Nineteen Eighty-Four recently, I had been hoping that Animal Farm would be a comparatively easy ride, yet all of this told me to brace myself for what was to come. And my instincts proved correct.
Performance photographs from Center Stage. See Acknowledgements below.
The action starts with a chain gang-like column of animals straining to drag carcasses down the aisles before heaving them up onto a metal table. A whip-cracking, rifle-toting Mr. Jones, clad in overalls and sporting a red cap lacking only the MAGA logo, rewards the exertions of the animals by tossing them a single slab of raw meat, and even the herbivores display a vicious, feral animalism brought on by the barbarous conditions under which they labor. In slow motion, the animals lunge, teeth bared, at the piece of meat, presumably the flesh of a comrade. Clearly, this is no happy herd.
Using the Ian Wooldridge adaptation of the novel, which, Wooldridge says in the production notes, “was written for a company with limited resources” and a cast of at least six actors, this production features eight cast members playing multiple roles. Those unfamiliar with the story may find it a bit difficult to keep the characters straight in the beginning, but they soon become unmistakable, thanks both to the skilled acting and costuming cues. Designed by Izumi Inaba, the costumes, neutral coveralls and skullcaps accessorized by handheld masks, tails, and hoofs, keep the actors’ facial expressions ever visible, allowing them to effectively anthropomorphize without forfeiting their animality – no mean feat.
The tale unfolds as old Major (just “Major” in this production), stirs the animals to rebellion. The pigs soon control the farm, and Snowball, following Major’s lead, lays down the seven commandments of Animalism. With the savage opening scene still fresh in my mind, though, the irony of labeling their political ideology “Animalism” suddenly occurs to me; intentional or not, Adrales’s production has exposed the term as one fraught with ambiguity. And as the beasts hoist their green and white hoof and horn flag, I am all at once reminded of yet another revolutionary flag, one associated with this very city: the huge 30 x 42-foot garrison flag that once flew o’er the ramparts, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, sometimes referred to as the second American Revolution. Clearly, seeing this production in this historic city has got me thinking right from the outset, precisely what a play is meant to do.
The rest of the performance stays true to Orwell’s 1945 “fairy story” with no sense of being dated, and one by one the seven original commandments of Animalism are amended to suit the needs of the scheming swine. A few subtle nods to recent politics work on an almost subconscious level to bring this tale into the 21st century: “See Something, Say Something” propaganda posters; Mr. Jones’s red cap; and a power handshake à-la Trump. Yet feeling most current of all is the fake news regularly spewed out by Napoleon’s right-hand hog, Squealer. In her director’s note, May Adrales points out: “There will always be pigs. The only change will be the identity of the masters.” And therein lies the key to this story’s timelessness.
This production boasts a first-rate cast, but the real standout for me is Tiffany Rachelle Stewart. Hoofing around the stage with equine agility, she poses little threat as the vainglorious mare Molly, but make no mistake: as the scheming and unscrupulous Squealer, she is one bad boar. But hers is not the only praiseworthy performance. Stephanie Weeks, whose role as old Major showcases her fine singing voice, also doubles as workhorse Boxer; Jonathan Gillard Daly, with brief roles as farmers Jones and Pilkington, is especially memorable as the knowing but jaded Benjamin; Deborah Staples is heartbreakingly convincing as the sympathetic horse Clover; Melvin Abston, menacing as Napoleon, also shines as the soulful Moses, the evangelizing corvid; and Brendan Titley, compelling as Snowball and Minimus, gives the audience an extra something to crow about by depicting a chicken with mannerisms that would have fooled even Frank Perdue.
There is still another week [ends Sunday April 1st 2018] to catch this unique production of Orwell’s classic tale. Fans of Orwell will surely be moved by this powerful performance, so if you plan to be in Baltimore, make a point of seeing it. It will no doubt get your goat, but after all, that’s the whole point.
Our thanks go to director, May Adrales, and to Robyn Murphy from Baltimore Center Stage, for the assistance they extended to Ms Biederstadt.
Here is a taster of the play. Thanks to Robyn Murphy for supplying the link.
Photographs of theatre exterior by Carol Biederstaft. Photographs from performance by Michael Brasilow for Center Stage – see each photograph for full details (each photograph appears next to the text describing the performance) – and supplied by Center Stage. Our thanks, again.
Uploaded Sunday March 25th 2018