Four legs good, two legs bad

Four legs good, two legs bad

Zoot Theatre Company presents ‘Animal Farm’

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: Zoot Theatre Company presents Animal Farm the next two weekends at Dayton Art Institute; photo: Bill Franz

“‘Animal Farm’ is a natural for puppets,” Darren Brown, one of Zoot Theatre Company’s core ensemble of actor/puppeteers said. As performed by Dayton’s own creative puppet company, you may wonder how George Orwell’s post-World War II anti-Stalin allegorical novel could be staged any other way.

The satire opened Friday, April 25 at the Dayton Art Institute in the NCR Renaissance Auditorium and runs through Sunday, May 11 as the final Zoot Main Stage production of this season.

The troop of seven manages to sound like a whole barnyard of creatures. They manipulate puppets – essentially animal heads and unadorned pipe armatures – while the observer’s eye somehow fills in the abstraction to create a complete body.

Artistic Director Tristan Cupp has worked Zoot magic again, creating yet another form of puppets – as always, designed to augment the story’s theme they’ve come to tell by style and appearance.

This 1964 adaptation for stage, by Nelson Bond, is a challenge to Director Aaron Vega and the actors who must tell the story, personifying the characters and animating puppets simultaneously. It’s a new exploration of multi-tasking and physicality. Stamina builds with bending, reaching and manipulating.

The animals of Manor Farm grow distressed and angry because their farmer, the drunken Mr. Jones, neglects and starves them – and finally they revolt. Two pigs – the smartest of the animals –  take over as leaders and proclaim The Seven Commandments of Animalism. Those familiar with the story often equate animalism with communism.

“Any ideology taken to extreme becomes oppression,” Brown said.

Here are the Seven Commandments:

1. What goes on two legs is an enemy.
2. What goes on four legs or wings is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes (a distress to a horse that loves pretty ribbons)
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7.  ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL.

At first, everything goes well, but instinct – or is that “human” nature? – prevails. Greed and power grabbing combined with sustained bad weather and other serious problems lead to blame and self-serving behavior.

When lack of character and ethics win over intelligence and honor it’s easy to change those commandments to accommodate the boss, pig Napoleon, now standing upright.

Now: No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets. No animal shall drink alcohol to excess. No animal shall kill any other without cause. All Animals are Equal – But Some are More Equal than Others.

The most privileged of all is Napoleon, an allegorical Stalin, manipulated and portrayed as more and more intransigent and power-mad by Natalie Houlisiton.

Snowball, a literate pig and the first animal head of the farm, is later scapegoated by Napoleon. Juliet Howard-Welch marks his reaction to change with clear emotion. His position reflects Leon Trotsky and parts of Lenin.

Squealer does Napoleon’s bidding. Also serving as minister of propaganda, he is somewhat like Molotov. Eric Arntz brings out the best – actually the worst – with a barrage of words.

Boxer is the hardest-working farm creature, a plodding, naïve sweet citizen horse. Darren Brown elicits audience reaction saying, “If I work harder, everything will be better.” He qualifies for retirement, then gets sick. Although others are told he’s to be hospitalized, he’s sent to the glue factory.

Clover, played by Lisa Bernheim, brings a woman’s sensitivity and perception to the farm. She gets what the pigs are perpetrating, she’s empathic to Boxer and tries to alert others – then doubts herself.

Benjamin, the wise donkey who can actually read well, is as skeptical as his creator, Orwell, and is indignant and dour. Michael Stockstill does a fine grumbling job declaring, “Life will go on as it always has – badly.”

Muriel, a literate goat, connects with most of the other animals. Perhaps respected, but powerless, Muriel is animated by Ayn Wood.

Every one of the ensemble manipulates several other characters; humans both sober and staggering, a ribbon-loving horse flirting, Moses – a raven squawking cynically about the rewards of heaven in Big Rock Candy Mountain. There are several other birds, puppies trained to be Napoleon’s snarling body guards and assorted chickens, sheep and cows.

“I totally trust this troupe to handle the puppets,” Vega said. “My job is to direct actors and we’ve all worked hard together on this challenging show.”

The behind-the-scenes creativity that comes from the Zoot workshop begins with Tristan Cupp’s “thinking sketches,” then moves to three dimensions – perhaps big blocks of Styrofoam being roughly cut. It almost looks as sculptural as marble. Dedicated head artist Leesa Haapapuro, and volunteers like Kerry Bush add finishes, detail and color, after Cupp devises the means of articulation.

Light design, including some hand held devices, is by John Rensel. Nathan Dean does his best to conquer the sound challenge of the DAI space. The minimalist set is designed by Ray Zupp, with costumes by Shirley Wasser and props by Sarah Gomes.

The Zoot Theatre Company’s focus is intensely creative and purposeful. Art is primary. But into every endeavor, some reality must occur. They welcome extra financial support at Facebook.com/ZootTheatreCompany.

The Zoot Theatre Company presents Animal Farm the next two weekends at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m.; Sundays begin at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit daytonartinstitute.com.

 

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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