“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
The insidious line from George Orwell’s 1945 novel “Animal Farm” inflamed generations of readers’ political imaginations. In terms of applying literary metaphors to the present political climate, however, the classic is often eschewed in favor of “1984,” which surged to the top of Amazon’s best-seller’s list after President Donald Trump’s election. Yet in “The Farm,” a song-poem opera interpretation of “Animal Farm” by Jon Tracy, TheatreFIRST argues that this story is just as relevant to today’s world, if not more.
“The Farm” follows the revolution of Manor Farm after the death of the beloved boar Old Major; in response to Old Major’s death and the insurrection he encouraged, the animals overthrow their farmer, Mr. Jones. They create a new political theory of Animalism, rename their land “Animal Farm” and affirm their new seven commandments, which the show’s scenic designer, Randy Wong-Westbrooke, displayed in dripping and crossed-out paint on the wall behind the audience.
Wong-Westbrooke relied on a gritty minimalism for their set design, with the on-stage set utilizing only a stage-width, wooden, dilapidated windmill sail propped up against two elevated platforms of metal pipes. This unchanging, bare-bones set design allowed for the show’s focus to remain an unflinching gaze at the actors and their physicality.
The dialogue between the opera’s set design and this choreography, by Liz Tenuto, is breathtaking, with many of the actors’ movements playing a role in the creation of the opera’s sans orchestra score. Characters jump on a creaky board, slap their thighs and stomp to create the beats by which they chant, sing, rap and dance.
All the more, each of the lofted metal platforms belong to two crucial characters: raven Moses (Dezi Solèy), the narrator, and Old Major (Anthony Frederick Aranda), who assumes this elevated position after his slaughter. Both roles require the actors to remain on stage virtually throughout the two-hour (with intermission) run. This impressive feat is made more so by Solèy’s charisma and authority on stage; when not addressing the audience as narrator or interacting with the cast, she perches like a raven on a metal rod, silently judging all from above. Aranda’s Old Major creates the show’s only live musical accompaniment with a conga drum and a few handheld percussion instruments, demonstrating his talent and giving way to the powerful imagery of the animals marching to the drum beat of Old Major’s ghost.
Napoleon the pig (Tierra Allen), Animal Farm’s corrupt leader, is a force to be reckoned with, both as a character and an actress. Allen brilliantly combines humor into the role of the frightening despot, reminiscent of Ilana Glazer’s silly cockiness in “Broad City,” without losing the due gravity of Napoleon’s tyrannical governance. While the pig’s actions are communicated as fully reprehensible, Allen’s charm makes them visually enjoyable, with her impressive vocal range leaving her musical numbers among the most memorable.
Overall, the music of “The Farm” is best characterized as a blend of beat poetry and intermittent soul tunes, with the animals’ mournful songs clearly rooted in early formulations of the blues. The songs in Act 1 are catchy — not catchy enough to become earworms, per se, but enjoyable enough to begin to wish for a cast album. Act 2’s musical numbers aren’t necessarily less good, but there are fewer stellar moments.
To be fair, there’s a lot of plot to get through in two hours. Even though Act 2 contains the more memorable horrors of the novel, these horrors — in an attempt to provide their due gravity — slow the pace and tone of the act, losing Act 1’s momentum and charisma. Nevertheless, Act 2 consists of the more memorable quotations from “Animal Farm,” which received consistent murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
Though the influence of Broadway’s “Hamilton” can be instantaneously postulated from the vaguest description of “The Farm,” the similarities with “Hamilton” extend far beyond both shows adapting eighth-grade curriculum material into spoken word. The aforementioned “Seven Commandments” are sung in a structure nearly identical to that of “Ten Duel Commandments,” which itself was inspired by “Ten Crack Commandments” by The Notorious B.I.G. “Hamilton” seeps through in the opera’s approach to battles, of the physical and rap persuasions alike.
The undeniable influence of “Hamilton” is celebratory. Here, in a local production redeveloping a redevelopment of an infamous novel, we find what Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical set out to do with theater: to represent people of color on stage, to provide political commentary and to embrace rap, R&B and hip-hop musical traditions on-stage — music rarely on Broadway beforehand.
TheatreFIRST has declared itself dedicated to amplifying marginalized stories and “making theatre a place where social justice happens.” With the sublimely talented actors of color in “The Farm,” and with its deliberately applicable allegories for today’s world, TheatreFIRST not only succeeds in its goals, it sets a model for the way theater companies should strive to be.
“The Farm” will run at North Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre through Nov. 11.
Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].
A previous version of this article used the incorrect pronoun to refer to Randy Wong-Westbrooke.