On Stage

On Stage

 

The animals have taken over the Elite Theatre Company in its new production of Animal Farm.

While not a play, this production is a very dramatic and well-presented reading of Nelson Bond’s adaptation of George Orwell’s book. Orwell wrote the allegorical Animal Farm in 1945. It depicts a fanciful uprising in which civically driven and well-meaning barnyard animals revolt against their human master Farmer Jones (Larry Swartz). The satirical story was inspired by the events surrounding and following Russia’s socialist revolution of 1917.

 
Orwell’s farm animals overthrow their owner with the same spirit of hope, justice and community that have time and again inspired peasants and other suppressed lower classes to take up arms and fight against royalty, nobility and their own so-called 1-percenters. In the all-too-human events that follow, Orwell’s animals gradually glide down that slippery slope from civic-minded altruism and egalitarianism to bureaucracy, complacency, vanity, fear, segmentation and, ultimately, ruthless tyranny. Though written 70 years ago about events a generation earlier, Animal Farm may be as relevant and prescient today as it was in 1945. 

The production is staged in a simple black-box theater with just a few sparse but appropriate props.  Aside from the scripts held in the actors’ hands, there is little to distract from the faces of the seven talented performers spread in a loose semicircle across the small stage. What other productions might relegate to lavish sets and artistic staging, the versatile castmembers of Animal Farm portray entirely in faces, voice and tone.

Despite the almost complete lack of stage motion or choreography, the players express their characters and emotions with delightful vocal characterizations, engaging intonations and often delicate and telling facial expressions.   Boxer (Ken Johnson) and Clover (Cecily Hendricks) deliver some of the most touching and poignant characterizations, bringing a very personal and sympathetic face to this macro-societal epic. Orwell’s words and the cast’s heartfelt performance come together to paint vivid and colorful images in the otherwise empty space of the stage. The characters’ voicing and narration is powerfully accentuated with short, well-chosen bursts of background music peppered throughout the performance.

The ensemble cast delivers a spirited account full of emotion, passion, heroism, hope and heartbreak. Squealer (Patrick Crowder) and Napoleon (Adam Womack) personify the vanity and corruption of unchecked authority. Director William Carmichael leads his cast to infuse the tragic tale with just enough lightheartedness, sarcasm and whimsy to appropriately offset the dark tones of this all-too-real misadventure in society and government. Benjamin (Aaron Van Etten), Mollie and Muriel (both voiced by Susan Franzblau) imbue their characters with the most delightful subtle humor. For a show with very few human characters, the players express an amazing diversity of human spirit and emotion. Animal Farm tells a sweeping generational story, made meaningful and convincing through the eyes and hearts of a few very human animals caught at the center of events in a timeless cross-section of history. 


Animal Farm through Nov. 29 at Elite Theatre, 2731 S. Victoria, Oxnard. 483-5118 or
www.elitetheatre.org.

 

On Stage

On Stage

One of the fairest musicals of all time is handled with loving hands in Rubicon Theatre Company’s chamber version of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. What makes the production so remarkable is that director James O’Neil and his team do not handle it with kid gloves. They let the music, words and considerable talent of the cast and crew speak for themselves. Without the aid of elaborate sets, large cast or orchestra, the Grande Dame of musicals is allowed to stand on her own two feet — and, oh, how she rises to the occasion.

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady tells the tale of the pompous phonetician Henry Higgins, who wagers he can turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady by teaching her to “speak more beautifully.” Eliza, realizing that the only way she’ll get a job in a flower shop is to speak properly, agrees to the challenge. At first, Higgins treats Eliza with disdain and she nearly crumbles under the pressure. O’Neil deftly puts the focus on the characters so the Shavian themes of class struggle and women’s rights shine through. In the end, when Eliza stands up to Higgins, she is more than a lady; she is Higgins’ equal. In such expert hands, social commentary has never been more sublime.

Making her Rubicon debut, Kimberly Hessler brings Eliza to life with warmth and nuance. Even with a shaky Cockney accent, Hessler is radiant as Eliza. With her glorious voice, she makes the classic songs her own, especially “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which elicited audible sighs from the audience.

Joseph Fuqua, an award-winning actor familiar to Rubicon audiences, dazzles as Henry Higgins. He captures Higgins’ arrogance while showing the humanity beneath his British stiff upper lip. He imbues Higgins with bigger-than-life bravado when he sings “Why Can’t the English?” and then expresses frailty with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Clever staging shows cast members dressed as Eliza gliding through the house to illustrate how she haunts Higgins.

Rudolph Willrich plays Colonel Pickering with sly humor. Patrick DeSantis is wonderfully playful as Eliza’s father. His renditions of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which he sings with the ensemble, are highlights of the show. Will Sevedge plays the hapless Freddy and sings “On the Street Where You Live” with a swoon-worthy voice. Susan Denaker is delightful as Mrs. Higgins. Linda Kerns is smart and savvy as Mrs. Pearce. Lloyd Cooper and Chris Kimbler’s skillful accompaniment on piano sets a pitch-perfect tone.

Director James O’Neil reunites with the team behind Rubicon Theatre Company’s environmental productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Man of La Mancha, including Thomas S. Giamario (set and lighting designer), T. Theresa Scarano (set dressing and props), Marcy Froehlich (costume designer) and Jonathan Burke (sound designer). Their collaboration is magic, still. Two and a half hours fly by, and when you leave the theater you might just float past your car — for the next few weeks this is the street where My Fair Lady lives.


My Fair Lady through Nov. 15 at Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main Street,Ventura. For more information, call 667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org.

 

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