Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Allusion and allegory are two very different dramatic impulses, and they generally don’t like sharing the stage. So it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that a company like Synetic, known for allusive, loose-limbed, wildly inventive dramaturgy, would take on Animal Farm, that rigidly allegorical staple of seventh-grade reading lists. But Synetic’s strength is its fearless ability to crack open even the most oft-told tale and find something new, and Orwell’s tidy anti-communist fable could certainly use a touch of that. Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s expressionistic flourish repeatedly clashes with Orwell’s dogmatic plot, and when the lights come up you’ll find yourself thinking the wrong guy won the day. In an attempt to widen Orwell’s satirical target, Tsikurishvili adds some appealingly incongruous elements to the mix—electronic surveillance, audience participation, Swan Lake, and, in one elaborate multimedia sequence, visual shoutouts to Hitchcock and Scooby-Doo. (Tsikurishvili’s animals are also remarkably tech-savvy, which sets up the show’s cleverest visual joke: In the novel, the “Commandments of Animalism” are famously amended, slowly and stealthily, with fresh paint; in Synetic’s staging, they get Wiki’d.) There’s no faulting the performers, who portray the denizens of Manor Farm with the skillful combination of mime and dance that’s Synetic’s stock in trade. The pigs exude brute force and cold malevolence with every movement; the hens get a laugh the second they flutter onstage. Ben Cunis, as Boxer the workhorse, vaults across the stage with skill, but you don’t really understand how good the performance is until the startling moment when Boxer gets hurt. Cunis lends the horse’s repeated attempts to stand on his injured leg a sinewy, balletic, and ultimately heartbreaking power. In fact, the show comes alive like this whenever choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili manages to get out from under Orwell’s leaden framework, as she does in a series of remarkable dance sequences depicting the harvesting of crops and the building of machinery. Ultimately, however, it’s Orwell who’s driving this bus. The novelist has a tendency to slather his allegory on thick, and you want the director to keep him in check. Instead, Tsikurishvili dutifully picks up the trowel. Several scenes go on too long, especially those depicting cruelty and exploitation (dude, we get it.) This heavy-handedness is disappointing, but I can’t dismiss the possibility that it serves a kind of meta purpose. The subject is totalitarianism, after all, and it may just be true that you need a heavy hand to dramatize an iron fist.