Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

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Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

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Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

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Love, loss & the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics

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Sherman Tsang & Maddie Bautista in Paradise Comics – photos by producer Zach Parkhurst

 

Filament Incubator closes its #8playsin8months season with Caitie Graham’s Paradise Comics, directed by Darwin Lyons. Graham developed Paradise Comics at the Tarragon Theatre’s Young Playwrights Unit, where she now acts as Assistant Writing Instructor. I caught the opening last night at Kensington Hall (in Kensington Market at 56C Kensington Ave., Toronto).

What’s eating 13-year-old Beans (Sherman Tsang)? Is it that she didn’t get selected for science camp? The impending destruction of the planet caused by human disregard for the environment? The fact that her dad George (David Ross) has been sleeping in the car in the garage?

From the moment we enter the theatre, hearing the haunting emo soundtrack (sound by Deanna Choi) and seeing a kitchen strewn with boxes (set by Jingjia Zhang), we enter a melancholy world of disruption and chaos.

The world as Beans knows it is coming to an end. Paradise Comics, her dad’s beloved comic book store, is closing. Plus, he’s been acting weird and sad. So what if she spends more time at the shop than at school? She’s an excellent student, but she has her priorities. Her mom Janie (Sarah Naomi Campbell) has a different take on cutting school, though, and is getting on her case. And her BFF Hannah (Maddie Bautista) is being more hyper than normal, dancing as fast as she can to cheer Beans up. And what has Hannah done to their science project diorama?!

Really lovely work from the cast on this story of family, friendship, heartbreak and devastating change. Tsang brings a dark edge to the whip smart, academically serious and sharp-witted Beans; a science nerd who shares her dad’s love of comic books, she’s caught in the middle of her parents’ troubled marriage and her dad’s impending store closure. Ross is a gentle, laid back, cool dad as George; in some ways still a boy himself, having to say goodbye to his store – representing years of his life, work and passion – has set him adrift. Ross also gives a comic turn as Marvin, the affable and awkward storage company guy who arrives to cart off all the boxes; a comic book aficionado himself, he knows George and and the shop, and provides some surprising insight.

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David Ross & Sarah Naomi Campbell in Paradise Comics

Campbell’s Janie is both ferocious and a big warm hug personified; desperately trying to hold it together, she’s fierce in her fight to save her family from despair and eviction, especially in her attempts to connect with her daughter. Bautista is a quirky delight as Hannah; an outrageously positive kid, but no goody two-shoes, Hannah knows stuff. Finding her ongoing efforts to help Beans constantly shot down, she must decide if she wants to keep on trying or give up.

Beans’ mom and dad, and friend Hannah constitute the equivalent of her whale pod. And, like the whales that rally around an injured pod mate, they all need to be careful to not get beached along with it.

Love, loss and the struggle to avoid getting beached in the poignant, funny Paradise Comics.

Paradise Comics continues at Kensington Hall until Dec 3; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book your tix in advance. If you haven’t seen a Filament Incubator production this season, what the heck are you waiting for? Get on over to Kensington Hall.

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Check out the teaser for Paradise Comics: