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Stage Notes: turning actors into animals

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Maybe it's our stockyards heritage, but Chicago has always been a good place for theatrical animals. Ducks, donkeys, and dogs have waddled, cantered, and padded across our stages, and shows like Organic Theater's Volpone, Chicago New Plays' The Wind in the Willows, and two productions of Kafka's fable Josephine the Mouse Singer have featured elaborate or simple masks, hides, skins, or protective coloration.

Though there are lots of ways to make humans into animals (Rush Street is probably the quickest), the same problem persists: upright bipeds literally stand out. How do you hide our grotesquely long legs and our ridiculously high center of gravity?

Steve Pickering has a solution. For Bailiwick Repertory's season opener--the third American production of Sir Peter Hall's adaptation of what George Orwell called his "fairy story" Animal Farm--production designer Pickering faced the challenge of depicting farm animals as played by people (talk about the ultimate casting against type!). Orwell's modern fable, you'll recall, depicts the bloodless takeover of Mr. Jones's farm by the animals he so long abused. In socialist solidarity, they create a new society in which "all animals are equal." But the utopia founders when some animals--notably the first-among-equals pig, Napoleon--start thinking like Ollie North that they're more equal than others.

In response to the challenge of turning people into quadrupeds, Pickering came up with a piece of ingenious animal mimicry: hinged crutches for the forelegs that both support the actors' shoulders and suggest the rolling, fluid movement of goats, horses, pigs, and sheep. (Crutches were used in the previous American productions at Washington's Arena Stage and Dallas's Alley theater, but the hinges are a Chicago innovation, destined no doubt to circle the world.)

A graphic designer and actor (he played the prosecuting attorney in Bailiwick's much-praised Execution of Justice), Pickering used his drawing skills to create both the production's rabble-rousing poster and a score of elaborate, three-dimensional renderings of animal costumes in motion. "I wanted to create these costumes as if they were active sculptures rather than just coverings for actors." Pickering was also inspired by a satirical cartoon book from the 40s that illustrates World War II as "performed" entirely by animals.

The next step was to find materials to produce the "found" look that director David Zak was after--goats, for instance, covered with old ties that they might have eaten. Everything became grist for Pickering's mill: gauze, twine, sweater fragments (to provide the chickens' red combs and styrofoam for their eggs). "We're not going for Disney animals per se," Zak explains. "We want the audience to use their imagination, so we've avoided traditional animal costumes." Nobody here will play the back end of a horse.

To reinforce a satire where some 40 animals "ape" their human counterparts, Pickering looked for those special deja vu connections where something human suggests something animal, like the horses' manes depicted by shredded white rope. To make Farmer Jones, the main human, even more so (i.e., larger than life), he'll be played on stilts, while the larger horses will clomp on Equus-style in platforms. (At the end, when the animals become as bestial as their former human oppressors, the newly self-appointed pig dictators will doff their natural appearances and don costumes resembling Hitler, Ollie North, a businessman, a politician, and a contra.)

As a result of all this animal activity, the backstage of the Jane Addams theater resembles an "Animals R Us" store. Like Teddy Roosevelt's rec room, various fauna hang from walls or sit on shelves, and there are enough crutches to start a charity ward. The animal outfits have each been custom designed for the 15 humans who'll inhabit them, using photos taken of the actors without their costumes. To provide unimpeded singing and full emotional expressiveness during the 20 songs (written by Marat/Sade composers Richard Peaslee and Adrian Mitchell), Zak had the masks kept open; the audience should see the actor's face and the animal's profile--with all the ambiguity the combination provides. It means playing expectation against artifice, or, as Pickering puts it, "We hope that when the audience first sees the actor-animals in half-light, they might think, maybe only for a second, 'Hey, maybe that's a real animal onstage!'"

To preserve a sense of scale, anything smaller than a cat becomes an extension of some actor, conveyed through puppets manipulated by rods or rolled on--birds, ducks, chickens (made appropriately from chicken wire). The rat is constructed from circular-saw blades, with beady, bright red eyes straight out of Stephen King (created by MoMing lighting designer Tom Fleming). Sitting on an actor's shoulder, Moses the Raven has extendable wings (the mechanism hidden under black satin masking). (The original London production employed masked, Kabuki-style puppet manipulators, but Bailiwick prefers to keep its version more down-home.)

Among other Animal Farm attractions is a little puppy in a basket; sure he's cute, but he'll grow up into one of the evil killer hounds in the final scenes, themselves suggested by sinister leather strips attached to wire frames. Attired in old newspapers and tin cans, Muriel the Goat has a cutoff wing-tip golf shoe (resembling a baby bootie) fitted to her "hoof." A goose's neck is suggested by an exhaust pipe.

Shaping Pickering's "sculptures" is Faye Fisher-Ward, an animal executioner (of the masks, that is) who specializes in mechanical design. Fisher-Ward scavenged around for junk material and fabric that might be found around a farm, so the animals would look as if constructed from their surroundings. She also strove for an ironic contrast between the material and the thing represented, like shoe soles for the sheep's ears.

The actors meanwhile have kept busy mimicking the movements and voices of real farm animals they observed in the Lincoln Park Zoo--learning how to walk with their shoulders, how to spread the resulting stress over the rest of their bodies, how to sing with the diaphragm distinctly down. Species hopping is not easy: Zak is determined that, if humanly possible, the actors will never use their hands throughout the show.

Two years ago, you may recall, Hall's adaptation of Orwell's anti-authoritarian classic stirred up a controversy when the organizers of the Baltimore Festival of Nations cravenly capitulated to a Soviet threat to withdraw, and banned Animal Farm from the official program. As usual, the censorship backfired, and the show is now a hot item indeed. Well, some stories have always been more equal than others.

Animal Farm plays at 3212 N. Broadway through November 22. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 6 and 9:15 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM. Tickets are $10 and $15 and can be reserved at the box office at 883-1090 or the theater office at 935-5533.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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