Animal Farm at Steppenwolf Theatre, Review – A Great Adaptation of a Classic Novel


Remember back in middle school when George Orwell’s Animal Farm was a required read for everyone? I certainly do. Animal Farm is actually one of the few mandatory reading assignments from my youth that, along with The Diary of Anne Frank and Brave New World, I’ve never really forgotten about. The dystopian novel’s intense satirical mockery of the shrewd Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s brutality and his calculated pollution of every communist ideal provide a perfect allegory through Orwell’s clever use of barnyard animals. It sticks with you long after you’ve finished the story and dissected it’s themes many times over in classroom discussions.


(left to right) Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford), Pinkeye (Lance Newton), Mollie (Dana Murphy), Snowball (Sean Parris) and Maggie (Lucy Carapetyan) celebrate the first sunrise on their own farm


And now with Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ accurate and well-executed new stage adaptation by Steve Pickering, along with Alice Austen as his co-adaptor, we are brought back to it all. For older audiences it’s a chance for us to relive a classic and for the show’s primary target audience “young adults” (aka high school groups) this often riveting production provides teenagers a chance to experience the novel in a whole new way that is not only a more direct experience than just reading it, but it is also both enlightening and fascinating as well. While no stage version will ever be as good as actually reading the novel, Pickering and Austen’s adaptation stays faithful to the source material and to Orwell’s overall reasons for writing it. And though the dark political subject matter might be a tad too complex for its target audience to fully comprehend, it’s still an excellent production that is worth checking out, especially for anyone who has already read the novel.


Before moving on I need to point out that if you just look at the program you will see right away that this production was adapted by a playwright oddly named Althos Low. However upon flipping to Low’s bio further in the program you’ll discover that both Pickering and Austen are using “Althos Low” as a weird pseudonym for Shanghai Low Theatricals, a group based in Chicago that develops theatrical adaptations from a wide variety of sources. While it is nice that they’re giving credit to the SLT for aiding them in adapting this novel I still can’t help but feel that they deserve a stronger mention than having to hide behind a strange and fictitious pen name. After all the hard work they had to do to put this together it just seems peculiar to me not to take more credit for it.


(left to right) Benjamin (Will Allan) questions the new leadership supported by Squealer (Amelia Hefferon)


For anyone unfamiliar with the novel, Animal Farm uses barnyard animals as an allegory of early Soviet history. The various farm animals at Mr. Jones Farm Manor have grown tired of their treatment under the harsh tyranny of their human farm handlers. One of the elder boars, Major, soon inspires the barn animals to rebel by embracing the concept of “animalism”and stage a revolution to achieve an honest visionary state that is based on progress and fairness for all animals. Eventually though Napoleon manipulates his way to the top by overcoming his rival Snowball and he becomes a ruthless dictator that sets about turning the barn into a brutal totalitarian state. In the process every initial commandment of “animalism” is corrupted to such a degree that it no longer resembles anything that it once was.


Man (Will Allan) reframes writing as a weapon


The central reason why Pickering and Austen’s adaptation is so impressive is that we’re given a central character, the wise and cynical donkey, Benjamin, for us to relate to and whose role doubly acts as a “stand-in” for Orwell himself which provides a clear protagonist to focus on amidst the clutter of this cast on such a tiny stage. This adaptation literally starts with Orwell himself, portrayed by a solid Will Allan, writing the novel on his typewriter. Upon seeing us he stops typing and starts talking about why this story is so important. He implores us to not just sit on the sidelines with feeling a resigned hopelessness knowing full well that persecution is going on in the world around us. Then Mr. Allan’s Orwell slides on Benjamin’s donkey costume pieces and he transforms into the very same pessimistic nonchalant bystander that he’s been warning us not to become. Right away we know we’re going to be shown a morality tale about what happens when we remain silent in the face of extreme injustice. And we know that Benjamin will be our voice of reason to guide us through it all.


Coming into this production my only concern was how effectively they’d be able to make the animals look on stage. Admittedly I was a tad worried that I’d be witnessing actors either wearing outfits that would resemble a bunch of children’s Halloween costumes or that I’d be seeing them maneuverer a bunch of animal puppets around the stage. Thankfully due to Izumi Inaba’s intrinsic, yet marvelously simple, costume design neither is the case in this production. Rather the garments here are mainly just accessory items consisting of arm-warmers with attached hooves for mittens and headpieces with each animal’s ears, snouts, and hair/feathers attached. The costumes are basic enough that they’re chillingly humanlike (the masks leave both the actors mouths and eyes uncovered giving them all an eerie look of detachment). The costumes only give off the generic look of each animal thus also masking each character’s individual personality to a certain extent as well.


(left to right) Pinkeye (Lance Newton) and Julia (Jasmine Bracey) pitch in to help Boxer (Matt Kahler) pull the cart


Instead their personalities come out mostly through the strong acting in this young ten person cast. While it’s difficult to pinpoint every performer since there were so many, there were many standouts that are especially worth mentioning. Lucy Carapetyan was one of the most enjoyable to watch. This wonderful actress gave her nervous character Maggie some magnificent physical traits with great head ticks and physical jolts that perfectly mimicked those of an actual chicken and made Maggie seem like she’s always on edge, not really knowing who to trust. Amelia Hefferon gave her pig, aptly named Squealer, a great nasal vocal quality that appropriately added a lot of cold heartlessness to her spoiled opportunistic character. Blake Montgomery’s portrayal of Napoleon is fantastically sinister. Mr. Montgomery’s command of the stage and his disturbing disregard for his fellow companions is impressive. He easily conjures up images not only of Stalin but of many other brutal dictators throughout history.


Matt Kahler offers us the most moving performance as Boxer the determined and devoted horse. This character is already written as the most genuine character so its easier for us to sympathize with him. But even still Mr. Kahler went beyond what's in the text by adding some additional heartwarming layers to Boxer that really makes us feel for the plight of this character. It certainly made Boxer’s sad ending all the more real and emotional for us to take in. And Will Alan as Orwell the writer and Benjamin the donkey is our story’s perfect narrator. Mr. Alan is playing a difficult character in that he is between two worlds in this play. When his character talks to us alone on stage he is looking out at us trying desperately to get us to understand, while conversely at the same time when he is within the world of the farm he’s forced to be the helpless bystander that is all too familiar within each of us. Mr. Alan’s seamless transitions between both of these worlds are superb.


(left to right) Boxer (Matt Kahler) and Benjamin (Will Allan) look on as new leadership begins to form


While everyone on stage made some great inner acting choices, there were a couple of performers that nevertheless could use a bit more development on their animal’s outward mannerisms. In fact, were it not for the costume I would’ve had absolutely no idea that Mildred Marie Langford’s character Muriel was a goat. Ms. Langford, though she no doubt has great enthusiasm, just didn’t do anything physically, vocally, or even mentally to convey her animal to us. So she tended to mostly just blend into the background.


Similarly Dana Murphy’s character, Mollie, was way too human and not horse-like enough - though I will say that Mollie is written differently in this adaptation than the vain self-centered character I remember her being in the novel. Despite that Ms. Murphy could’ve played around with Mollie’s animal tendencies by providing her with some great physical and vocal horse-like idiosyncrasies that would’ve made her more delightful to watch. Right now Mollie is coming off a little whiny and bland. I will repeat that Ms. Langford and Ms. Murphy are by no means bad, but since their animal’s mannerisms were lacking they just weren’t as interesting to watch which also made it harder for us to connect with either of them.


Boxer (Matt Kahler) completes a hard day’s work while cheered on by his fellow animals (left to right) Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford), Julia (Jasmine Bracey), Squealer (Amelia Hefferon), Pinkeye (Lance Newton), Maggie (Lucy Carapetyan), Napoleon (Blake Montgomery), Mollie (Dana Murphy) and Benjamin (Will Allan)


The cast here is aided in part by Hollie Gordon’s direction which was mostly good, but was a tad slow moving in the interval between the animals “revolution” and when Stalin… err, I mean Napoleon takes control. And while a lot of that urgency is also because of the text, it could be helped if we got more of the back and forth tension between Napoleon and Snowball’s fight for power. There’s not much sense of imminent foreboding danger between these two characters. The stakes need to be raised more. This is a minor complaint though in an overall great piece that Ms. Gordon constructed for us. In fact, aside from this tiny lull in the story, the rest of the show feels fast-paced and flows extremely well.


Additionally Ms. Gordon adds to the experience of this production by encouraging audience participation at certain moments. Upon walking into the theatre everyone is given a card with a picture of an animal on the front with a phrase written on the back (mine was a pig with the slogan on the reverse side saying “All Hail the Revolution!”). Before the production starts we’re told to shout out those words with the cast whenever the words are spoken aloud and chant these slogans along with them. And while this might be all well and good for high school groups, for a general theatregoer it just feels very corny. I noticed many others felt the same way as no one got too involved in the shouting and some of the chanting slogans came off sounding hesitant and awkwardly quiet rather than enthusiastic and loud.


And while no one from the audience is called up on stage or pointed out in the house, the invisible fourth-wall between actor and audience is nonexistent in this production. The animals speak not only to each other on stage but to us in the audience as well at times. It’s as if we’re also animals included in this farm and that we share responsibility for the events unfolding on stage.


(left to right) Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) and Snowball (Sean Parris) negotiate leadership


Brian Sidney Bembridge’s narrow, but highly-functional set has a room in the farmer’s house at one end and a prison-like two-tier part of the barnyard on the other end. There’s also a wall on the second floor of the barnyard where the animals paint their “Seven Commandments of Animalism”.  One by one as the show progresses we see each commandment get distorted over and over again, with the last commandment changing from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.


The action in this story is amplified further by Rick Sims’ ominous music which highlighted dark orchestrations under many of the gloomy events unfolding before us. The music also gave the production a cinematic feel which made the show seem much larger than it actually was.


Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) plots his revenge


While this stage adaptation has a lot of strengths, there’s no denying the fact that it’s still not as good as actually reading the book. One of its biggest problems is that due to theatre’s limitations, this production is forced to minimize many of the most exciting parts of the novel. We don’t get to experience any of the battles between the humans and the animals, we never see the windmill actually be built or get to watch it be torn to bits, and we even miss the emotional scene where Boxer is carried off in the truck towards his death. All of these events happen off-stage and are just described to us via Benjamin. It’s not very exciting, nor is it as engaging.


Considering this is a production geared towards young adults it all gets a little too wordy. Even though the story is told by animals it’s still a very complex story that deals with Russian politics and totalitarianism so I’m not very confident that this show will truly hold the attention span of its target audience in the same way this book will. This adaptation is trying extremely hard to make us care – literally telling us to pay close attention at the very start and even asking us to shout out loud with the animals. The problem is that most young teenagers know next to nothing about what happened in Russia. They’re not going to understand the allegorical references being made so it’s just not compelling for them to sit through. I have the feeling that most will undoubtedly end up feeling confused, bored, and frustrated by it all and will end up tuning it out. I happened to notice a few of them seated around me had fallen asleep about halfway through the show.


(left to right, top to bottom) Squealer (Amelia Hefferon), Napoleon (Blake Montgomery), Dog (Sean Parris), Muriel (Mildred Marie Langford) and Dog (Dana Murphy) enforce a new order


No matter how important this story is, political tyranny just isn’t an exciting topic for young teenagers. Despite utilizing animals to the story, it’s still a dark and difficult show for young people to follow. I would not recommend this to anybody under the age of 14.  However if anyone is planning to bring someone under 18 to this I would strongly advise staying for the post-show discussion afterwards so they can recognize the themes in this story and perhaps understand all of it a bit more. Otherwise I feel that it will all just end up going straight over their heads.


Bottom Line: Animal Farm is recommended. Though this adaption is not as good as the book, it’s still not bad. In fact there’s a lot of excellent work going on that is worth checking out. The lessons that can be learned from Animal Farm are as true today as they were when Orwell first wrote it over seventy years ago. This play demonstrates how easily good intentions can be subverted into tyranny, that it’s not okay to ignore what’s going on in the world around us, that we should never keep quiet, that it’s important to participate, and that we have a responsibility to call out injustice and condemn it. We owe it to society to not allow history to repeat itself.


Animal Farm – Steppenwolf Theatre Company, a Steppenwolf for Young Adults Production

Running Time: 90 minutes roughly. There is no Intermission. A 15-20 minute talk back session follows every performance.

LocationSteppenwolf (Upstairs Theatre – 3rd floor), 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago IL 60614 

The theatre is located about a block north of the North & Clyborne station on the CTA Red Line on Halsted Street.

Runs through: November 14, 2014

Curtain TimesTuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 10 AM, Fridays at 10 AM and 7:30 PM, and Saturdays at 3 PM and 7:30 PM. There will be no performances on Sundays or Mondays during the run.

Tickets$20 and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Steppenwolf Audience Services Box Office at 312-335-1650

School Groups: School group tickets are available through the Education and Community Programs Coordinator Lauren Sivak at 312-654-5643 


Based on the novel by George Orwell, Adapted by Althos Low (pen name for Steve Pickering and Alice Austen), Directed by Hallie Gordon

Set Design by Brian Sidney Bembridge, Costume Design by Izumi Inaba, Lighting Design by J.R. Lederle, Sound Design and Composition by Rick Sims, Movement Direction by Blake Montgomery, Casting by Erica Daniels, Stage Management by Cassie Calderone

Cast includesWill Allan (Man/Orwell, Benjamin), Jasmine Bracey (Old Major, Julia), Lucy Carapetyan (Maggie), Amelia Hefferson (Squealer), Matt Kahler (Boxer), Mildred Marie Langford (Muriel, Cows, Ester), Blake Montgomery (Napoleon), Dana Murphy (Mollie, Dog), Lance Newton (Moses, Pinkeye), Sean Parris (Snowball, Dog) 

UnderstudiesCeleste M. Cooper (Old Major, Julia), Jay W. Cullen (Snowball, Moses, Pinkeye), Cooper Forsman (Man, Benjamin), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Squealer, Muriel, Mollie, Maggie) Dominique Worsley (Napoleon, Boxer)

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow


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