It takes a special kind of nerve to page through the masterworks of George Orwell, one of the great English-language writers of the 20th century, and think to yourself: "This could really use a little bit of me."
For better or worse, that seems to have been the motivation behind a misguided new adaptation and production of Orwell's "Animal Farm," the chilling and incisive novella that has long served as a warning about latent totalitarianism. The play, adapted by Justin Karcher directed by Drew McCabe in a collaboration between Theatre Jugend and the Subversive Theatre Collective, opened last Friday in the Manny Fried Playhouse.
In Orwell's hands, the widely read work about an animal rebellion-turned-dictatorship makes an utterly timeless statement about cyclical oppression that never fails to send chills up readers' spines.
But chills of a different sort result from this conflicted production, which manages to suck most of the life out of Orwell's potent prose and refill it with heavy doses of preadolescent humor and flat-out banality. Add to that Karcher's noble but misplaced attempt to shoe-horn in his ideas about identity politics, and you have a production that simultaneously complicates and dumbs down its source material practically beyond recognition.
Karcher, whose recent play "The Last of the Sensitive Bastards" had its share of heart and promise, set out to add what he saw as lacking in Orwell's original. As he explained in an email, the play was meant to evoke the sorts of identity struggles one might find in a high school. Among many substantial changes, Karcher cast Napoleon and Snowball (the two pigs who lead the animal rebellion) as extremely queeny gay lovers. But because it is played (and ostensibly directed) almost strictly for laughs,
this rather major liberty does not serve Karcher's laudable desire to highlight personal struggles with identity.
The adaptation also includes many clunky references to vampires, the Internet, alternative energy, Occupy Wall Street, the West Nile Virus and the modern health care system, each of which casts the piece further adrift from its central lesson.
What's more, the play's central performance by Jeffrey Coyle (as Napoleon, the leader of the pigs and Orwell's stand-in for Stalin) is so campy and overwrought as to deflate much of the dialogue Karcher found unimprovable. Other performances fare somewhat better, with admirable turns from Maria Droz and Bryan Zybala. McCabe's haphazard direction, though one wishes it had extended to Coyle's performance, does at least make good use of the space.
To be clear: There is, or at least ought to be, no such thing as a sacred text in the theater. Blind fidelity to the original, when that original is flawed or dated, can be just as ill-advised as mangling a work of genius by the misplaced injection of one's own ego. Shakespeare and Ibsen are often edited to great effect, but directors have usually found it wise to let the words of Orwell and Arthur Miller speak for themselves.
Though nothing should exempt Orwell from updates that make reference to the Internet and current political movements, there's a pretty good argument for keeping them out: The central genius of Orwell's work is its instant application to every era and epoch, to any social or political situation and to any personal identity. It is, in a sense, always up to date.
That being said, it's certainly possible to envision an adaptation of "Animal Farm" that includes the odd contemporary reference and effects a subtle shift in focus from the political to the personal. This one isn't it.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Dec. 18
WHERE: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
TICKETS: $15 to $20