- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Big Brother and comrades in hooves merge in Synetic Theater’s innovative, tragicomic version of “Animal Farm,” George Orwell’s barbed barnyard satire on Soviet totalitarianism and failed socialist governments.

Tyranny comes in two-legged and four-legged forms in Mr. Orwell’s classic novel and in Synetic’s lively production, which is notable for its use of screens and filmed elements that both inform and monitor the play’s staged action.

Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s background in film is put to excellent use in his adaptation (along with co-adaptor Nathan Weinberger), using video not only as a surveillance technique but also to document some of the production’s most poignant and alarming moments.

Black-and-white stock film footage of weaponry and demolition are given the slapstick lilt of a silent movie when showing the havoc that humans can wreak after a rebellion results in the animals taking over Manor Farm for the common good. In fact, many of the sequences featuring the drunken, bumbling Farmer Jones (Irakli Kavsadze) are daffy and comedic, while other scenes reveal the menacing evil the farmer and his human henchmen Pilkington (Matt Eisenberg) and the Farmer (Larissa Liventals) are capable of when threatened by the animal uprising.

The large screen in the back of Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s garbage-can-strewn set is mostly used as a Big Brother-like spying device. Scene after scene of the beating of animals, such as the intellectual pig Snowball (Peter Stray), are captured on video and shown to the other livestock as a cautionary lesson.

The screens also are commandeered by the revolutionaries — the former leader Old Major (Philip Hylton) delivers his rabble-rousing manifestos surreptitiously on camera, and the maxims of the new order are posted onscreen “Two legs bad, four legs good” and “All animals are created equal” like an ever-evolving blog.

However, the most harrowing image comes near the end, when the collective has gone from virtuous to vice-riddled and the pigs Napoleon (Dave Bobb) and Squealer (Andrew Zox) have grandly appointed themselves the benevolent leaders. The animals have turned on themselves, and no one is safe or to be trusted. When the workhorse Boxer (Ben Cunis) collapses, injured from exhaustion, the official story from Napoleon is that he’s under a vet’s care. However, the video reveals another, more sinister end for the loyal Boxer as he’s slowly, excruciatingly lowered into a gluepot until only his grasping hands remain visible.

Mr. Tsikurishvili and his choreographer wife, Irina, lived in pre- and post-communist Russia as well as Germany when it was in the final throes of the Cold War, and their intimate knowledge of oppressive regimes shows through masterfully in the mingling of the absurd and the chilling.

The details are pitch-perfect — the animals clutching little red books and waving scarlet bandanas, the parades with endless displays of farm implements and armaments, and the nationalistic music, its manufactured pep meant to inspire and benumb the average comrade.

Mrs. Tsikurishvili’s choreography expertly captures the assembly-line mechanical drudgery of nonstop work for the common good, and she also adeptly conveys the individual characteristics of the animals without going overboard. As the prize pony Mollie, Courtney Pauroso makes her gentle hooflike movements and tossing mane sweet counterparts to the proud, dumb brawn of Mr. Cunis’ Boxer. Marissa Molnar, Jessica Hansen, and Shannon Listol also make a fine gaggle of pecking hens, especially when they prey like a girl gang on the unsuspecting humans.

The scenes that begin on film and continue onstage are ingenious the first couple of times but become a bit tedious, and some of the transitions need to be more seamless. The show also suffers from a chock-a-block quality that makes it appear thrown together and unfinished — which may be caused by the sometimes uneasy hybrid of clownish humor and brutal horror.

“Animal Farm” contains the physical artistry and flashes of brilliance we expect from Synetic, but the lack of cohesion makes it less than sublime.

***

WHAT: “Animal Farm,” an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger

WHERE: Synetic Theater at the Rossyln Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Sundays. Through May 20.

TICKETS: $15 to $35

PHONE: 703/824-8060

WEB SITE: www.synetictheater.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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