The National Players brought an intriguing performance of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to the Grand Opera House as part of the GrandKids Arts Education series.
The National Players is a unique group for the Grand to bring in; though it is a professional theatre company that tours internationally, its cast and crew are made up entirely of amateur performers, most of whom are just coming out of their college or post-graduate education programs in the theatrical arts.
For those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s political allegory, “Animal Farm” is a cautionary tale about animals in a barnyard who attempt to create a communist society in which they are all equal and end up enslaving themselves to the farm’s pigs.
To keep the play from becoming visually hokey, the Players took a minimalist approach: the actors wore loose, baggy clothing of varying color schemes to indicate their species. They evoked their characters’ animal natures by mimicking certain beastlike mannerisms, including dropping to all fours on occasion and stamping their feet, as if they were stamping a hoof, instead of clapping.
The set, too, was minimalist. According to the National Players’ website, the company carries its own costumes, set pieces, and tech with it while the actors are on the road. Naturally, this means that the players are somewhat limited in what kind of set pieces they can bring with them.
Rather than rigging anything that looked like a barn or a farm, the cast used a bare framework through which the animals could string a thin rope to indicate their labor on the farm. They also used thick spools of rope, held in metal frames to make them boxlike rather than round, which the actors used as farm equipment and, later, to build a windmill under the direction of the pigs.
Most peculiar about the choices regarding set design was the use of two projectors on either corner of the stage, which the characters used to project backgrounds or text onto the set’s backdrop. At first the projectors seemed like a cheap out to compensate for the minimal set. As the play went on, however, the actors used the projectors in creative ways: to project backgrounds, to evoke a thunderstorm, to show the audience the animals’ “laws”, and to obscure actors as they switched characters—which they did regularly. The technology, though jarring at first, became a seamless addition to the production. The only complaint I have is that the tech table, including a laptop with a glowing screen, was easily visible from any point in the audience, reminding the viewer that she was watching a play every time an actor slipped over to tap at the keyboard.
The young cast of “Animal Farm” was exceptionally talented and very convincing. Unfortunately, the allegorical nature of the story and the fact that the performers occasionally rotated roles made it difficult to establish character. Also distracting were the technical issues facing the traveling troop. There were no microphones, making the dialogue hard to hear, and the house lights did not go off until halfway through the show. If either of these choices were intentional on the Players’ part, they were the wrong choices for the Grand: both became distracting for the audience.
However, the taut storyline and the fresh talent redeemed the play in the end, making for an enjoyable and thought-provoking night at the theatre. One may hope that the Players can work out the technical difficulties the next time they visit the Grand, but overall they left a good impression, and the Macon audience will be eager to see more of their work.