Prime Stage Theater's production of Animal Farm, adapted from George Orwell's novel by Andrew Periale, has my admiration for one simple reason: All through the show, the human actors portray pigs and horses and so forth, walking on two legs because, you know, they're humans. Toward the end of the story, in the context of the narrative, pigs begin to walk on two legs, and somehow Stefan Ligenfelter, as the pig Napoleon, who has been walking on two legs for the whole show, manages to make his "first steps on two legs" genuinely chilling. It's quite an accomplishment.
Employing just eight actors, director Melissa Hill Grande must represent all the inhabitants of Animal Farm, who were used as a parable for all of Russia, whom Orwell saw as a synecdochic case study of victims of totalitarianism. (Got all that?) Grande accomplishes this using an arsenal of techniques, from puppets to shadows to good old-fashioned noise. An actor might play many different roles in a scene, sometimes even swapping out a single role.
As with any experimentation, there are hits and misses — for example, occasionally the cast spreads out and each addresses a different section of the audience. The one-eighth of these scenes provided by John Michnya, as Boxer the old workhorse, at least, are very charming, and it certainly produces confusion and ruckus. But one is left feeling like one missed something from the other seven actors.
The New Hazlett Theater is probably my favorite theater in the city simply for its layout, all balconies and catwalks. It seems ideal for a setpiece in one of those self-aware action movies people keep making these days. The venue's thrust stage is something of which this production takes full advantage.
Unfortunately, spreading out the audience makes it harder to get laughs or a standing ovation. And when theatergoers are exhorted to sing along with a song they've never heard before — as happens in Animal Farm — the crowd is silent, the actors keep singing and encouraging people to sing along, and the discomfort thickens faster than bacon grease.