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'Animal Farm' as Petting Zoo

In Topanga, Orwell's satire is a family-friendly work, wittily staged


"Four legs good, two legs bad."

No, it's not the latest PETA campaign slogan. This axiom is the essential tenet emerging from "Animal Farm," the second offering of the 2002 summer season at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga.

Sir Peter Hall's 1984 National Theatre adaptation, the sole version sanctioned by George Orwell's estate for live performance, faithfully adheres to the action of the deathless 1945 allegorical satire on totalitarianism. This commences with the ousting of tyrannical farmer Mr. Jones (Thad Geer) by the beasts he has long overburdened. These barnyard denizens freely verbalize without the slightest concern about suspension of disbelief, not to mention Bolshevik analogy, as the Russian Revolution and its aftermath form the author's original template. Thus, sage pig Old Major (Steve Matt)--whose expository observations on man's inhumanity to animal inspire the rebellion that follows his peaceful demise--is Orwell's Lenin.

His Trotsky is the idealistic pig Snowball (Melora Marshall), who, along with fellow porcine leaders Squealer (Aaron Hendry) and Napoleon (Jim LeFebvre), initiates an intentional community based upon the precepts of "animalism." The boorish boar Napoleon gradually emerges as despot, his bloody rise to power on the trotters of propaganda mirroring that of Stalin. By the finale, the formerly oppressed have become indistinguishable from their former oppressors.

Orwell's vision has never seemed more pertinent, and director Ellen Geer revels in witty allusions to everything from a chicken's right to choose to anthropomorphous spin doctors. Her engaging staging uses every verdant corner of the incomparable venue, aided by designs recalling summer camp extravaganzas, with Terry Hunter's costumes utterly (and in the case of the cows, udderly) delightful. They clothe the deft maneuvers of an able ensemble, occasionally wavering in voice but consistently invested. Marshall's gender-switched Snowball lends a wry feminist aspect to the conflict with LeFebvre's raucous villain, and Hendry's oily yes-pig recalls countless obsequious turncoats past and present.

Other standouts include the equine contingency of Tom Allard's priceless Boxer, Ernestine Phillips' heartfelt Clover and Willow Geer-Alsop's winsome Mollie. Melissa Thatcher's nonstop kinetic energy enlivens goat Muriel; Jeff Wiesen's droll self-importance tickles as porker-laureate Minimus; and Justin Doran's gravel-voiced donkey Benjamin is brilliant, his climactic hysteria producing the single most chilling moment.

That this unnerving peak is an isolated one seems the production's chief drawback, the darkness seldom registering as incisively as does the whimsy. This certainly applies to Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell's innocuous, tension-diffusing songs, for all of musical director Louis Durra's expert stewardship.

Another factor is the narration by youngsters Kellen McDaniel and Jessamyn Sheldon (alternating with Ian Durra and Anna Press), whose erratic miking and singsong delivery soften the impact. Still, though it is bemusing to witness "Animal Farm" succeed more fully as family entertainment than unsettling diatribe, given the pleasure this production generates, it seems swinish to complain.

"Animal Farm," Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Saturdays, 8 p.m., through July 20; Sundays, 7:30 p.m., through July 28. Also Sept. 29. Saturdays, 4 p.m., Aug. 3 through Sept. 21. Ends Sept. 29. $8-$22. (310) 455-3723. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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