Saturday, December 3, 2011

Theatre Review: Occupy Animal Farm by Justin Karcher at The Subversive Theatre Collective

I'd forgotten what a great story George Orwell's Animal Farm is. I remember reading it in elementary school and the teacher went to great lengths to explain the love declared between male pigs Napoleon and Snowball, the leaders of an animal revolution, was NOT the same as the love between a man and a woman. It was more brotherly and certainly not sexual.

The Subversive Theatre Collective, a feisty and tireless political theatre group working out of an old Pierce-Arrow automobile plant in Buffalo, New York is presenting Occupy Animal Farm, an original play based on Orwell's allegorical novella about a political revolution among animals on a farm. Here, there is little doubt Napoleon and Snowball (Jeffrey Coyle and Jonathan Shuey) are gay pigs frolicking in the mud, plotting revolution and very much in love.

They are self-proclaimed leaders of the revolt after convincing the other farm animals that pigs are the smartest of the animal kingdom. Early in the play while scheming to take control of the farm, Napoleon unexpectedly announces to Snowball, "I love you.". It's a funny scene with a finely executed dead beat that caught the audience unaware as if responding, "Did we hear that right?".

I was reminded that the book was a real page-turner, and the integrity of Orwell's vision, a cleverly comic fable with totalitarian thunderclouds threatening a socialist agenda, is intact in writer Justin Karcher's original work, which leans heavily on the humor while never relaxing the muscle that gives the story dramatic weight, even suspense.

Director Drew McCabe incorporates several unlikely theatrical forms into the proceedings: chaotic chase scenes set to the tune of a wacky slapstick soundtrack (think Benny Hill); audience participation that never quite catches on (this only works when the audience is enraptured); and dance choreography (yes, not only do these animals talk, they dance) to Justin John Smith's original, bizarre, and finally memorable music that combines rock and Hindustani influences. The closing dance with the entire cast, a morphing of modern and Asian-Indian dance forms by choreographer Jenny Kulwicki, is strangely effective while having seemingly nothing to do with Animal Farm.

The actors work their tales off. While it would have been more visually fulfilling if the farmyard had several more animals in it - a sheep here, a cow there, everywhere a goat-goat - the seven actors, donning masquerade-like animal masks and sometimes in multiple roles, express graceful acrobatic animal gestures while never hee-hawing the production into farce.

Maria Droz as Mollie, the young horse indifferent to the political revolution and longing for the lazy days of hand-fed sugar cubes and pretty mane ribbons ("No one wants to RIDE me anymore!"), bellies a perfect counterpart of desire to the gang mentality of revolution, as she sashays her way across the farmyard as if on her way to visit Mr. Ed. Brian Zybala as Boxer the work horse masters the sound of a horse snorting (he also does a fine chicken strut in a second role), and, like the hard laborer, is the backbone of this production in a strong sympathetic performance as the genuine believer in political change.

Technical difficulties hampered the show on its second night with one long moment in darkness where nothing happened but a dead stage. The decision to put the only human character in a mask (Matt Kindly as Farmer Jones) lent the stage a bit of confusion as the actor played multiple roles in various masks.

At home after the theatre I lookeed through my books to see if I had a copy of Animal Farm. I need to occupy it again. That is the measure of the success of this production.

Occupy Animal Farm plays through December 17 at The Manny Fried Playhouse in the old Pierce-Arrow automobile plant in Buffalo, New York. For more information call 716-408-0499.

this review was first published by the author at

Thursday, December 1, 2011

MUSIC REVIEW: Kate Bush, 50 Words For Snow

It's marketing strategy that Kate Bush's new album, 50 Words For Snow is released just as the winter solstice is stirring outside. Who better that Kate Bush to hunker down with on a cold winter night, start into a candle flame, tip a glass of wine, and entertain some serious intimacy? Bush's feverish followers, waiting sometimes years between new releases, will indulge in their passion for the art-rock goddess.

The new album finds her conjuring wispy piano chords while musing with her breathy multi-ranged voice on the mysticism of snow. It's an ambitious project that misses very few snowy ideas. Unlike Paul Simon's "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover", we get all 50 words for snow here, assuming phrases like "hunter's dream" and "ankle breaker" constitute words. My favorite here: "poland-sent-it".

The music is often dreary and meandering. An indulgence in mysticism or religion finds her soul deep in her psyche but wallowing in shallow execution. . Opening track "Snowflake" finds the cold white stuff heralding no less than the origin of man with Bush assuming a first-person godlike point of view, "I was born in a cloud", she begins and after trekking the ascent of man allows her son in a choirboy soprano to sing, "I am sky!".

I am tipping my second glass.

This notion, or condition, gets hip deep in the snowdrifts and runs through the entire album. She muses about the man who fell to earth while prancing on simple and amateurish piano chords that seem only the beginning of a creative process. A rough draft of music.

Better is her bizarre take on "Frosty The Snowman". In "Misty" she is seduced in bed by Misty the snowman who apparently is a little chilly in the love department. She sings, "so cold next to me, I can feel him melting in my hand", with all the drama of her most serious work. Here she paints a frightening, maybe enlightening picture of a man made of snow melting in her bed with nothing but the empowerment of women left on the soaked sheets.

But there seems little reason for the distant "Wild Man", the first and probably only single off the album, about the discovery of an ancient man and the attempt to communicate with him. "We found footprints in the snow", the lyrics read, constituting an entry in Bush's snow files.

Her duet with Elton John, "Snowed In At Wheeler Street" is god-awful. A creepy cloying song about a tragic 20th Century love affair that sounds like an old Ashford-Simpson composition set against the backdrop of a concentration camp. Is she truly referencing the Jewish Holocaust in a call and response duet with Elton? - "Then we met in '42 but we were on different sides. I hid you under my bed, but they took you away". Ironically, Elton hasn't sounded this good in decades.

As alluring as 50 Words For Snow seems on the verge of, it is as often a cold affair. Its only intimacy is that we all share some kind of poetic notion about snow. Bush comes close to tapping into that shared consciousness, but never succeeds in conveying that to a great piece of music.

On her official website, there are heaps of praise for the album from several major media critics. I'm glad for that because I've always loved her music. But for me, for now, here's a snowball aimed right at it.

This review was first published by the author at