Guy Masterson brings ‘Animal Farm’ to formidable life in solo performance

12/16/2012 10:08 PM

05/16/2014 8:34 PM

Guy Masterson, as theatergoers who have attended the annual British Invasion know, is a visceral performer — aggressively physical, facially pliant and vocally versatile as he ranges from falsetto to bass.

He brings all those attributes to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which he has adapted as a two-act solo performance. Working with nothing more than a bale of hay at center stage and exactly two props, Masterson brings Orwell’s political allegory to life with formidable performance skills.

Masterson’s physical solidity suggests that he could carry a piano on his back without much strain, but he’s light on his feet. Grace and delicacy are as important as strength and bulk in this performance.

George Orwell (nee Eric Blair) wrote his novella in the 1940s as an explicit criticism of Soviet communism and dictator Josef Stalin, who had betrayed Marxist ideals with his ruthless police state. The book suggests that any revolution will be corrupted because nobody and resist the intoxicating allure of power and privilege.

The Soviet Union passed into history, of course, but police states still seem to be a thriving industry in some parts of the world. Masterson’s performance makes clear that “Animal Farm” still has plenty of relevance at a time when our political system appears irredeemably dysfunctional and many of our politicians have mastered Orwellian rhetoric.

The narrative depicts an animal rebellion on Manor Farm. The humans are pushed out and the animals take charge of their own affairs. All animals are equal, according to the new principles of Animalism, and any creature that walks on two legs is inherently bad. But the pigs teach themselves to read and become the new ruling class, eventually trading with humans at neighboring farms, rewriting the rebellion’s history, imposing rigid rules on the other animals, enforcing politically correct thinking and hoarding the best food for themselves.

Masterson embodies — and clearly delineates — the various characters vividly: Napoleon, the ruling pig; Squealer, his chief propagandist; Boxer, the hard-working (but not very bright) draft horse; Benjamin, a donkey who views the machinations of pigs and humans with equal skepticism, and many others. The social tapestry is rich as Masterson portrays horses, cows, attack dogs, sheep, goats and the occasional human.

It’s been a long time since I read “Animal Farm” but as near as I can tell virtually every word comes from Orwell’s book, although Masterson allows himself the occasional ad lib. (At point he slips in a reference to the “fiscal cliff.”)

Masterson takes his audience on a real emotional and intellectual journey. The show is by turns inspiring, exciting, frightening, mournful and poignant. But it also shows us that “Animal Farm” is an allegory worth revisiting and leaves us with couple of inevitable questions: Does human nature really change? At the end of the day, aren’t we animals too?

The uncredited sound and lighting effects are vital to the success of the performance. The director of record is Tony Boncza.

Masterson has performed “Animal Farm” for some 17 years, and he claims that this marks his retirement of the piece. He’s said that before, so we’ll see. At his curtain call Saturday night he comically suggested that perhaps there’s a “young American actor willing to take this on.”

I could certainly picture other performers doing this piece. But few could play it with the explosive vitality Masterson brings to the stage.

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