Andrew Farmer’s ‘Our Farm’ at The Tank

New writing makes new theater. It may seem tautological, but in New York, at least, the big new openings are just spruced up revivals. (Sunday saw the Broadway opening of “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ken Ludwig’s light farce from 1989, and the Wooster Group’s latest experimental theater offering is a revival of their 1982 play “North Atlantic.”) Luckily, some new writing is on evidence in Our Farm, a fast and loose adaptation of “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s Communist parable and the bane of 8th graders across the country. Never fear, anti-intellectuals, “Our Farm” has no pretensions that it will “teach” its audience. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t as smart as it is sophomoric.

On Saturday, “Our Farm,” written by Andrew Farmer (I will NOT make a pun) and directed by Andrew Neisler, received a workshop reading at the 45th Street Theater (also known as the Tank”).  For anyone for whom elementary school is a blur, the original “Animal Farm” concerns the barnyard inhabitants of Manor Farm. Balking under the oppressive mistreatment of Farmer Jones, the pigs Snowball and Napoleon lead a revolution with support from Jessie and Bluebell, the loyal sheepdogs, Boxer, the work horse, Clover the mare and Benjamin the grumpy donkey, among others. The allegorical connections to the Russian Revolution (Snowball is Trotsky, Napoleon is Stalin, etc.) are thrown out in this new version. Our Farm takes place many years after the events in Orwell’s novel using the convention of a play-within-a-play. The now aged and wheelchair-bound Snowball (Elizabeth Hess) presents the premiere performance of her all-animal company, The Theatrical Assembly of Self-Realized Animals or TASRA. With these pets and barn animals playing the roles in the book, Snowball retells the events of Animal Farm “truthfully.” Interlaced with sense-memory exercises and frequent interjections from Snowball, the narrative continues smoothly until the real Napoleon (Rafael Goldstein) arrives and takes over the show with Son of Sam’s violence and Busby Berkeley’s flair.

The show, which had a successful run last fall at The Cherry Pit, features a bevy of recent and soon-to-be graduates of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Hess, who is one of the few cast members over 30, is a professor of undergraduate acting at NYU and will be recognizable to fans of Nickelodeon in the 90s as Melissa Joan Hart’s mother on “Clarissa Explains it All.” As Snowball, she gives severely maternal nuance to the authoritative and wistful theater director. Max Reuben and Ryann Weir are playful and appropriately scatter-brained as the sheep dogs Jessie and Bluebell and Grace Folsom is heartbreaking as Moses the raven when she is forced to deliver her poem not in English but in a series of indistinguishable and tearful caws. The standout is Goldstein, who grins and glares like a charmingly insane butcher.

Farmer has reduced the amount of narrative lifted from the book and refocused attention on the theater exercises undergone by the Theatrical Assembly of Self-Realized Animals, or TASRA. There is still room for tightening, particularly in the first act, and the less of the original book the better. When he just leaps from the source material to his own dark imaginings, the play truly comes to life. One character’s dead body is made a puppet, Napoleon makes bad puns (following a redesign of the stage, he calls himself a “set de-swine-er”) and forces the animals to compete in a contest for their lives (the dogs must remove cloth from their heads and the equines must swallow a heaping spoonful of peanut butter). Playing off animal clichés and the conventions of downtown theater, Farmer has created a crude, slapdash production that is raw in all the right places.

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~ by theaterpulse on April 8, 2010.

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