“All Animals Are Equal — But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”
The amended declaration, on a farmyard wall where all the once-rebellious animals can see, if not read, their revolutionary credo, is probably the best-remembered detail of George Orwell’s political fable, Animal Farm, once promoted as an anti-Communist allegory (the pigs are the Bolsheviks: Snowball, Trotsky; Napoleon is Stalin, etc.) during the Cold War, often on high school reading lists.
In collaboration with the Shotgun Players, playwright-director Jon Tracy—who doesn’t shy away from controversy or loaded metaphors—has “remixed” this tale of bestial collectivity betrayed, and come up with Animal Farm, performed outdoors in the old amphitheater at John Hinkel Park, a vigorous theatrical which morphs Orwell’s cautionary tale about power into more 21st-century trappings and mood—more about the volatile mix of despair and hope in the present world (particularly in its youth culture) than nostalgia for old dualisms.
(In fact, “Orwellian” itself went from meaning a jaundiced eye cast on the manipulation of semantics for limiting the perception of reality to an adjective for a dystopic society that employs “mind control.” The little novel 1984 was, ironically enough, long—and automatically—considered an anti-Soviet polemic; Orwell wrote it after resigning in disgust from the BBC over Basic English programming.)
In the greenery of Hinkel Park, a metal shed sits on a stage riddled with trap doors, surmounted by a percussionist (Dan Bruno, who doubles as Old Major, the animal prophet of revolution) beating out a tattoo under the green banner emblazoned with hoof and horn that declares the Republic of Animal Farm. The splendid production design is by Nina Ball.
Whether it’s the heroism of domestic beasts routing their bipedal oppressors (“Four legs, good; two legs, bad!"), the gossip and scheming ‘round the postdiluvian barnyard, or the conflicting recollections and sudden purges which gradually erode and transform the collective memory of great deeds and purposes, it’s all played out in ensemble style.
The cast is costumed more for underground clubbing or Burning Man than Old MacDonald or the ASPCA, turning musical numbers into stomps or swinging from monkey bars while reciting lines that rhyme, figuratively kicking up the dust, raving with pride or plaintiveness over the shape forced on them, the fate of beasts subjected to a world of complacent men—until they kick out the usurping Homo sapiens and restore Nature, which turns out to be human nature. In the end, the whiskey-imbibing clique of pigs is indistinguishable from the wily human visitors, all cheating at cards.
(Orwell’s original put one over on the Anglo-Saxon sentimentalizing of domestic animals. Another, earlier Englishman stated it more simply and maybe more in tune with what Tracy’s driving at: William Blake, whose “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” commented on both the beginnings of the French Revolution and a kind of proto-New Age spiritual revival in 18th-century London: “As a new heaven is begun ... the Eternal Hell revives.”)
The enthusiastic ensemble numbers 14, from theater majors and graduate students, like Antonette Bracks (San Francisco State) and Mairin Lee (ACT), or recent grads of Solano College Actor Training, Sergo Gonzales and Roy Landaverde, to a pro (and Shotgun vet) like Brent Rose, who returned from New York to play barnyard witness and narrator Moses.
“It must be due to some fault in ourselves,” opines the stalwart, if obtuse, horse Boxer (Brendan Simon), when animals kill other animals, breaking yet another commandment. His solution? Work harder.
Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley announced the run, weekend afternoons through Sept. 13, will include Labor Day, “a great day for this!”
Presented by Shotgun Players,
from George Orwell's Animal Farm
4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the amphitheater at John Hinkel Park. Free admission; suggested donation