Steppenwolf for Young Adults staging new adaptation of ‘Animal Farm’

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BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

When Hallie Gordon began contemplating the challenge of staging an adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” she had at least one reference point to consider. Back in the late ’80s, Bailiwick Repertory staged a critically acclaimed production of Peter Hall’s musical adaptation of the classic novel. For anyone who saw it, it remains a benchmark.

“The Peter Hall version was on my desk for a long time,” admitted Gordon, artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults. “But it felt dated and seemed too big and not within our means.”

To get a new adaptation underway, Gordon contacted actor/writer Steve Pickering, who had designed the Jeff Award-winning costumes for the Bailiwick production and had a deep connection to the story. Under the pen name Althos Low, he and fellow writer Alice Austen penned the new script. The challenge was to find “the right tone and the right way into the story,” Gordon said.

‘ANIMAL FARM’ When: Oct. 18-Nov. 9 Where: Steppenwolf For Young Adults, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $$15-$20 Info: steppenwolf.org

Anyone who has read “Animal Farm” knows that it is vast in scope and filled with an array of animal characters. Orwell, who was wounded during the Spanish Civil War, wrote the allegorical novel (he referred to it as a “fairy tale”) and published it in 1945, just as the Soviet Union was becoming a Cold War threat. A sharp-eyed observer of the world around him, Orwell saw that fascism had been defeated but that another form of totalitarianism was looming large.

Orwell transfers the story from Russia to a farmyard where oppressed animals rise up against their human masters only to find themselves trapped in a new and more hideous form of captivity under the leadership of a totalitarian pig named Napoleon. Orwell said his goal was “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

“We knew we wanted to be faithful to the events of the book,” Pickering said. “Our adaptation takes place in a small corner of the farm, and once we had that set, we knew we were on the right track.”

The SYA adaptation is framed through Orwell, who, as the play opens, is seen beginning the process of writing the novel. Then the scene shifts to the animals and the observations of the complacent donkey, Benjamin, who is a representation of Orwell’s mindset at the time he wrote the novel.

How the 10 actors would portray the animals was worked out through much experimentation. In the Bailiwick production, the costumes were engineering wonders, with the actors using jointed crutches that allowed them to walk on four legs. No crutches are employed in the new adaptation.

“We tried going ‘full blown animal’ as we call it,” said Will Allan, who portrays both Benjamin and Orwell. “But eventually we scaled back to just being human but wearing these incredible masks [created by costume designer Izumi Inaba]. It’s a good middle ground, because in reality ‘Animal Farm’ is really about the behavior of people.”

Last season’s SYA adaptation of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” fueled some interesting conversations with high school student audiences about politics and government. Gordon is hoping “Animal Farm” has the same result.

“I hope the kids walk away with the knowledge that you can’t be complacent, that you have to be an active participant in the world around you, and that you can create change,” Gordon says. “I want them to feel like I’m holding up a mirror to them and asking ‘What do you want to do?’”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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