Review: Literate Animal Farm Shows Off Germinal's Smaller Space -- and Better Coffee
The cast of Animal Farm at Germinal Stage.
At the beginning of last year, we heard that Germinal Stage Denver was closing its doors after forty years -- 25 of them in a small theater just off Federal Boulevard. But Germinal wasn't going away completely; artistic director Ed Baierlein simply wasn't ready to stop his work. He's always been fiercely independent and profoundly literate, a brilliant actor and courageous director who followed his own muse with a magnificent disregard for what was fashionable or popular, producing important -- though almost never contemporary -- plays, some brilliant successes, some forgettable. And so he negotiated with the City of Westminster to secure a new venue; in exchange for renovating the space, he's allowed to use it rent-free. The arrangement is provisional - at some point the building will be torn down - but Baierlein isn't letting that stop him. His company is now performing Animal Farm in the new venue, an even smaller spot that's cozy, welcoming and workable. Some of the company's original paintings of principals adorn the walls, though there's not enough room for the hundreds of photographs of previous productions that were on view in the old place. Still, walking in feels a bit like entering a time warp. The Germinal faithful, along with a few young initiates, throng the lobby, and the only changes are minor: The scent of Baierlein's pipe smoke hasn't yet completely permeated the building, and there's a shiny new coffeepot in place of the dingy ancient one that for decades produced the bitterest, dreggiest coffee in town. See also: Germinal Stage is Leaving its Theater Building, But the Memories Play on
Judging from the schedule so far, Baierlein has no intention of changing his basic approach. He's focusing on playwrights whose work he's explored often before and using many of the same actors. This Animal Farm is almost exactly the same as the one he mounted in 2003; there's only one new member in the five-person cast. Still, the show is clean, tight, convincing and not the least bit stale; George Orwell's satirical parable about the dangers of totalitarianism feels even more germane today as the shadows falling across our world darken and lengthen. We know that we're being spied on in ways that Orwell couldn't have imagined, and that police forces across the country are becoming more and more frighteningly militarized. And we're aware that outside threats -- both exaggerated and entirely real -- are utilized to justify curtailment of civil liberties.
Orwell's pseudo-children's story tells the tale of a group of abused and hungry animals who drive their cruel farmer off his land and take over, determined to create a utopia under the guidance of the cleverest species among them: the pigs. But soon the pigs are assuming human prerogatives, and the animals' beautiful revolution is falling apart. Orwell caricatures with deadly accuracy the techniques of the Soviet Union: the show trials, propaganda methods, use of religion to mitigate earthly distress. Here the gospel is preached by Moses, the raven. Snowball, the comrade-pig who genuinely tried to better everyone's lives, is driven away and then shows up in the pigs' propaganda as a demonic larger-than-life figure bent on sabotage. At the beginning of the revolution, the pigs have a series of commandments painted on the barn door. The most germane is "All animals are created equal." This eventually morphs into "All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others."
The cast members don't actually mimic the creatures they play, but simply suggest them, holding their hands like hooves, uttering the occasional moo or baa, allowing a normal sentence to slide into a squeal. Dane Torbenson's porcine dictator, Napoleon, becomes increasingly bent, twisted and ugly as the action progresses. Randy Diamon, the sole newcomer, is touchingly low-key as the loyal, exploited carthorse, Boxer, and Lori Hansen is both sad and comic as his mate, Clover. Stephen R. Kramer's skeptical old donkey, Benjamin, is a high point, and Susan Wellens brings brightness and clarity to sycophantic little pig enforcer Squealer. The stage is minimally furnished, and Sallie Diamond's costumes are simple and effectively rural.
Germinal could still branch out in new directions, show a brilliant and surprising late-season flowering. Or it might just keep producing some of the most literate work around, only in an even more intimate space - and with better coffee.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.