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Animal Farm

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 17, 2020

Laura Clare Browne and William Ketter
Photo by Russ Rowland
Enter The Paradise Factory in the East Village these days and you might think you have stumbled upon some sort of regression therapy session, what with a quartet of adults crawling around the straw-covered floor on all fours like little children at play. But, no, this is your somewhat bemusing introduction to The Seeing Place Theater's edgy adaptation of George Orwell's political satire, Animal Farm.

Orwell is perhaps better known for the dystopian novel "1984." If you saw the 2017 theatrical version of "1984" on Broadway, you will recall its vivid depiction of torture within a brainwashing totalitarian society. "Animal Farm," published a couple of years before "1984," is a softer-toned allegorical work in which the author targeted the rise of Stalin and refashioned the Russian Revolution into a rebellion by a collective of farm animals. It is that rebellion and its aftermath that are being depicted by a cast of four in the adaptation by The Seeing Place's Producing Artistic Director Brandon Walker.

Walker and the company's Executive Artistic Director Erin Cronican co-direct the production and also perform several of the 28 different characters, animal and human, that are represented here. Dressed in black and working without benefit of animal masks or costumes, the very busy cast members must rely on modifying their body language and speech patterns to pull this off. Smartly, the major roles have been divvied up to emphasize contrasting characteristics for the actors to leap between.

Walker does fine work jumping from the flamboyant role of Napoleon, the power-grubbing pig and stand-in for Stalin, and of the gentler one of Boxer, the horse whose credo until the end of his life is "I will work harder." Ms. Cronican does nicely segueing from Boxer's timid and tenderhearted cart-horse friend Clover into an outraged hen who refuses to give up her eggs. In similar fashion, Laura Clare Browne plays the vain mare Mollie as well as Napoleon's propaganda chief, Squealer. William Ketter, who is particularly adroit at evoking his inner animals, depicts Moses, the raven who fills the other animals' heads with promises of an eternity on "Sugarcandy Mountain," and Benjamin the donkey, smart enough to understand what is going on yet choosing to distance himself from the politics and power-mongering.

Now in its tenth season, The Seeing Place Theater prides itself on tackling works that would be a challenge to any acting company, and of doing so on a shoestring budget. I have long admired its ability to find new and powerful ways of presenting everything from Shakespeare to Ionesco to Martin McDonagh and Caryl Churchill and more. Pulling off Animal Farm with four actors is just the kind of dare Seeing Place would gravitate towards. Still, with so many characters coming and going, you might want to brush up on Orwell's novella before entering this barnyard. Otherwise, you might find yourself unironically agreeing with the final sentence of the book: "The creatures outside looked from man to pig and from pig to man, but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Animal Farm
Through February 23, 2020
The Seeing Place Theater, 64 E. 4th St.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: