Pig power plays at 'Animal Farm.' 'Everybody' is talkin'. Alanis and Hammerstein, but no Natives.
'Animal Farm'. 'Sanctuary City'. 'Everybody.' 'Oedipus.' 'Jagged Little Pill.' 'Oklahoma!'
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the ‘Farm’, after they’ve seen…Pasadena?
Yes, I’m paraphrasing the lyrics of an ancient pop song to make the point that Pasadena and nearby neighborhoods constitute the hottest cluster of locally-produced theater right now.
The creatures who liberate themselves from servitude in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” at east Pasadena’s A Noise Within, as well as the human audiences there, might also want to check out “Sanctuary City” at Pasadena Playhouse and “Everybody” at Antaeus in nearby Glendale.
Let’s begin with “Animal Farm” itself. In 1985, the International Theatre Institute had scheduled Peter Hall’s dramatization of George Orwell’s novella for its Theatre of Nations festival, to be held for the first time in the United States — in Baltimore.
But the Soviet Union objected — and ITI changed its mind.
That decision led to fiery charges that the festival was kowtowing to the same system that Orwell had been satirizing, when he created the famous fable in which farm animals overthrow their human owner. As you might recall from your assigned reading, the animals become the victims of totalitarian terror that is created by their own revolution’s leaders, especially by Napoleon — a pig modeled on Stalin.
By 1986 Stalin was long gone and had been publicly denounced by later Soviet leaders, but apparently he was still a sensitive subject in Moscow (the production was staged in Baltimore anyway, but outside the official festival).
At the end of the year, LA Times theater critic Dan Sullivan gave the ITI one of his annual Humbug Awards for its “wimpish solution.” But apart from Theatricum Botanicum productions in Topanga in 2002 and 2017, Hall’s adaptation hadn’t received much attention in the more thickly populated parts of our region.
Enter A Noise Within. Its version of Hall’s adaptation of “Animal Farm” produces a bountiful and opportune harvest. In the program, the company’s artistic directors — Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott — wrote that this “tale of dreams hijacked by authoritarian greed” is a “chilling exposé on the fragility of democracy” that’s especially relevant in September 2022.
Rodriguez-Elliott was more specific on the Pasadena Now website: “The tactics employed by the [play’s] pigs as they create a ‘tyranny of the minority’ are instantly recognizable: the simplistic slogans, the creation of perceived enemies, the fake news. With midterms taking place this fall, this play is once again über-timely. It’s a call to action” — and I’ll add that’s true for today’s Russians as well as Americans, although I don’t suppose that “Animal Farm” will be staged anytime soon in Moscow.
Note that Rodriguez-Elliott mentions no particular current political figure. At least in her staging, Orwell’s/Hall’s would-be dictator, Napoleon, is much more subtle and probably craftier than our country’s own aspiring despot. As portrayed by Rafael Goldstein, this Napoleon barely seems like a leading character at the beginning. But when he first unleashes an unearthly howl (aided by a sound designer), we begin to pay more attention to his ultimate ambitions.
Rodriguez-Elliott’s production is a marvel of multi-tasking actors and design components. Even the relatively mild musical contributions by Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell sound more richly-sung than I recall from previous versions. Because of the sheer number of shows that I’m covering today, I’ll withhold further comment on details, but here are some other written reactions with which I’m in general concurrence, from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle website and Broadwayworld.com. Don’t look for any LA Times coverage; the former “paper of record” in LA hasn’t noticed this “Animal Farm.”
Seeking ‘Sanctuary’ in Pasadena and Newark
“Sanctuary City,” at Pasadena Playhouse, isn’t quite as in tune with today’s political crises, because it’s set in a specific earlier period — 2001-2006, in Newark, New Jersey — which more or less reflects the environment of the transition into adulthood for its playwright Martyna Majok, a childhood immigrant (at the age of five, in 1990) from Poland. While some of the hottest issues from that era are still on the national burner, others are not.
The first part of Majok’s play consists of many brief snippets of rigorous conversation between two undocumented neighbors, G (for girl?) and B (for boy?), considering their options as they approach the end of high school amid troubling circumstances. Their full names and origin countries remain unspecified.
These quick fragments are performed in and around a set that appears formed out of basic playground equipment. Later the play skips four years and then opens up to a more detailed set, concluding with a longer, more conventionally structured scene that involves a third character.
The first part is striking for revealing a lot of information without ever being obvious in the process. The second part, which has a big revelation that I won’t reveal here, is more obvious, yet also more convoluted. The leading performances of Ana Nicolle Chavez and Miles Fowler are remarkably agile and authentic, especially in those earlier scenes, under the direction of Zi Alikhan.
‘Everybody’ comes alive as Everybody approaches death
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, in his “Everybody” at Antaeus, didn’t have to worry about how to reveal plot twists. His original source material is based on the medieval morality play “Everyman.” And, as in the original, its central point is something that everybody already knows, even if we try to avoid it — that we will eventually die.
That might be a tough hurdle for marketing purposes, but those who venture to Antaeus will find that the playwright has centered this fact in a witty, contemporary framework that creates more laughs than chills.
Five actors who play the roles of “Somebodies” are sitting among us as the show opens. On the instructions of God (Cherish Monique Duke), Death (Anne Gee Byrd) summons the Somebodies to join her on stage.
A quick lottery is held at each performance to determine which of the five will become Everybody, who will now face the journey toward death. Antaeus swears that this is a real lottery, reflecting the randomness with which death can occur. Indeed, it’s an extreme example of the Antaeus tradition of casting important roles with more than one actor.
At each performance, the lottery’s winner/loser assumes the role of Everybody, whose primary task now is to convince the other Somebodies to accompany him or her toward the final destination. We’re told that all five of the “Somebody” actors know all of Everybody’s lines as well as all of the Somebodies’ lines. So any of them can play Everybody, or any of them can fill in for the other Somebody who has been selected as Everybody.
Got that? Well, at the performance I saw, the device worked flawlessly, with no one stumbling over lines. But I won’t even identify the actor I saw as Everybody, because the chances are high that you’ll see someone else in the role. However, here are the names of those playing the Somebodies, in alphabetical order: Lisa Sanaye Dring, Nicole Erb, Harry Groener, Antonio Jaramillo and Gerard Joseph.
Jennifer Chang directed the ensemble and a canny design team, striking exactly the right tonal balance between the evanescent and the everlasting. Preparation for this particular production must have been somewhat jolted by the July 8 death of longtime Antaeus member Gregory Itzin.
I’ll mention briefly another contemporary adaptation of a classic text that’s still playing — “Oedipus,” in a bilingual ASL/spoken English production from Deaf West Theatre at the Getty Villa, adapted and staged by Jenny Koons with ASL adaptation by Andrew Morrill and Alexandria Wailes. As spectacle, it’s quite…spectacular, especially if you see the moon gradually rising over the Getty as the king’s sad story unfurls. But I can’t say that the Oedipus story speaks to “everybody” as deeply as, yes, “Everybody.”
A Connecticut Yankee takes a ‘Jagged Little Pill’
Two big touring musicals opened in LA, one day apart from each other, since my last Angeles Stage.
“Jagged Little Pill,” at the Pantages in Hollywood, shares a title with Alanis Morissette’s breakthrough album from 1995, and all of the album’s Morissette/Glen Ballard songs are represented here, with different arrangements.
But this is not your average jukebox musical. Diablo Cody wrote an involved and surprisingly involving book (and won a Tony for it) about a white family with two teenagers — one of them an adopted Black girl — in suburban Connecticut.
Heidi Blickenstaff is terrific as a secretly addicted mom who begins and ends the musical writing annual Christmas letters — the latter much more frank about familial problems than the former. A son has to face up to witnessing a rape at a party, and a daughter starts a romance with a boy even though her current crush is a girl (the latter character gets to belt the Morissette hit “You Oughta Know”). The parents seek marriage counseling. The story is a bit soap-operatic, but the music helps charge up our engagement with the plot.
Besides the original album’s songs, the production also includes eight songs from the rest of Morissette’s catalog and three new songs that she co-composed for the show — one with Guy Sigworth and two with Michael Farrell.
By the way, near the top of the “Jagged” producing credits is “Geffen Playhouse-Tenenbaum-Feinberg.” The Geffen confirms that the playhouse has a financial interest in “Jagged Little Pill.” Howard Tenenbaum is the chair emeritus of the Geffen board of directors. Could all of this translate into an eventual production of “Jagged” at the Geffen? We might have to ask the next artistic director, now that Matt Shakman is leaving. But his successor has not yet been appointed.
Farmers and cowmen should be friends…with Natives?
Let’s end where we began — on a farm. You might suspect that rural life in the touring “Oklahoma!,” now at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, would seem a bit more tranquil than in “Animal Farm.” But the director of this “Oklahoma!”, Daniel Fish, might disagree. There’s a dark grimy haze on the meadow in his version of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Much of his staging takes place on a nearly blank, desiccated set where most of the cast frequently sits at tables, listening to the soloists, almost as if they — and we — are witnessing a table reading. But if the set design is sparse, Fish overcompensates in the lighting and sound design — turning off all of the lights occasionally so we can concentrate on the amplified voices, shining bright banks of lights directly into our eyes at another point, using some loud and contemporary musical arrangements
His most successful post-modern touch was to cast Sis, a large trans woman, as Ado Annie (the “girl who cain’t say no”). Less fruitful were his decisions to offer a long solo “Dream Ballet” and to make the death of Jud much more explicitly violent than usual, as if he were the first person ever to notice a darkness lurking within “Oklahoma!”
Here is a suggestion for any future director/adapter who wants to create a revisionist approach to “Oklahoma!” Don’t go post-modern — go pre-modern.
The Native-derived word Oklahoma is often translated as “red people” (although there is some debate over the finer points of this translation). The musical takes place in what was then called “Indian Territory” — pre-statehood Oklahoma. The play on which it’s based, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” was written by the part-Cherokee (and gay) Lynn Riggs — one of his other plays is titled “The Cherokee Night.” I’m not offering any particular idea, but couldn’t some future “Oklahoma!” reflect some recognition of the Native roots within the area’s historical context?
Native Voices, the Autry Museum-based indigenous theater company, is currently led by DeLanna Studi, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She’s probably busy right now with the company’s premiere of “Desert Stories for Lost Girls,” soon to open at LATC, but I wonder if she has thought of tackling a different take on “Oklahoma!” If the rights holders are open to Fish’s ideas, why wouldn’t they be open to Native voices?