One of the stranger things you can see over the course of an hour is the lessons that pigs will give you in a dictatorship. But the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s performance of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (Normandale Black Box, 1/22 at 9, 11:30, 2, and 4) was an entertaining and chilling teacher.
The story, adapted to the stage by director Jack Zerbe, centers on the efforts of farm animals to create a barnyard utopia (Moo-topia?), before descending into a totalitarian dictatorship. As their lives fall to oppression, the attitudes of those involved offer a damning indictment of both humankind’s lust to power, and to the lengths people will go to avoid confronting their problems.
The story was told by a spirited and talented ensemble cast that filled the room with a passion. In particular, Randy Breedlove and Alychia Bilstein, both shone in the production. Bilstein, who played Squealer the pig as well as a narrator, fulfilled one of any dictatorship’s needs: a speaker. The speeches given, with a predictably textbook list of why things were changing to totalitarianism, were a propaganda masterpiece. It seems unlikely Bilstein won’t find theatrical work after college, but should that occur, I imagine North Korea’s national news service would welcome her with open arms. Breedlove, masterfully switching between distinct personas as Benjamin the Donkey and Napoleon the Pig, simply looked like a dictator. The distinct military style of his costume (Major points to Melissa Valdez, the costume designer), the cold and reserved demeanor, and the rigid and contemptuous attitude all gave me chills, as if I was watching the rise of Hitler or Stalin. Every cautionary tale needs a villain, and Breedlove perfectly fit the bill.
The true conflict that emerged though, was not in the dimly lit and vaguely foggy theatre (a perfect aesthetic for a clandestine revolutionary meeting, and a credit to lighting designer Audrey Wardian), but in the minds of the actors. The oppressed animals are steeped in Regressive Ideology, a term that Zerbe uses to discuss people truly believing that negative factors are good for them and inescapable, while they are in fact harmful and changeable. The work horse Boxer (Michael Juarez) embodied this, believing that it was a lack of hard work that caused the farm’s woes, rather than the increasing selfishness of the ruling pigs. To his dying breath, he labored for the farm, believing in Napoleon to infallible, even as he was carted off to the slaughter house. Juarez was incredibly genuine in his role, giving me a much more complex view of life for those under tyrannical heels (or hooves).
This powerful work was so relatable not just because it showed the audience how real human impulses are, but by holding a twisted mirror for us to also see how close to the animals we can become. The drive to establish total authority, as well as being brainwashed to accepting that authority, is a dark chapter repeated over and over through the pages of human history. Animal Farm is a chilling reminder not of how far we have risen, but of how far we can fall.
Director: Jack Zerbe
Production Manager: Sarah Buck
Stage Manager: Hannah Klein
Original Design Concept: Robin Vest
Lighting Design: Audrey Wardian
Costume Design: Melissa Valdez
Sound Designer: Aaron David Wrigley
Publicity Graphic: Marc Williams
Dramaturg: Lucas Perez-Leahy
Property manager: Savannah Savick