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Beastly behavior 

Low budget Animal Farm is chillingly effective

George Orwell's Animal Farm has lost none of its allegorical power with the turn of the 21st century, despite the collapse or invalidation of world communism. Orwell's slim, accessible book about a barnyard revolution initially made a pitch-perfect metaphor for the Soviet Union's early history. You can easily match up Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin to the literal pigs who take over "Manor Farm."

Jack in the Black Box Theatre Company's inventive and heartbreaking production proves that Animal Farm provides more than a one-to-one Soviet parallel. Adapted by Ian Wooldridge, Animal Farm serves as a pointed parable for any case of laboring citizens misplacing their trust in an exploitative government. Plus, you couldn't ask for a more passionate plea for the ethical treatment of animals.

Jack in the Black Box's actors introduce the show while wearing boots and army fatigue pants, evoking guerrilla fighters of the Fidel Castro model. Otherwise the only "human" characters appear as misshapen, oversized puppets. When an abused populace of domesticated beasts seize control of an English farm, they establish their own utopian ideology and even have an anthem reminiscent of "L'Internationale." But pigs will be pigs, and when the ruling swine seize more authority for themselves, the "lesser" animals find their situation to be even worse than before.

Directed by Jon Tyler Owens, Jack in the Black Box's production serves as a case study for creativity on a budget. Though the set consists of a realistic clapboard barn, the animals -- whether wearing masks or costumes, or portrayed by puppets -- often consist of imaginative found objects. Old Major, the aged hog who plants seeds of rebellion, appears as a huge face with hubcaps for eyes, as if the Pink Pig turned commie red. Otherwise, the actors in pig roles, such as Steve Westdahl as the tyrannical Napoleon, are shirtless and wear masks with big stitches in them, so they disturbingly resemble porcine versions of Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But perhaps the clock ran out on the design team: Some of the touches, such as the cow masks seemingly scrawled on white cardboard, seem slap-dash and chintzy.

Having actors romp on all fours and moo or oink inevitably has an element of humor. There's a particularly funny moment when a pig, appropriately named Squealer (a piercing-voiced Craig Glassco), casually "milks" an actress while explaining the latest perk the pigs have taken for themselves. The dim-witted, easily manipulated sheep prove especially amusing, and Brenda Norbeck shows a talent for blankly comical faces.

Animal Farm is no politicized Disney cartoon, however, but a shattering work that approaches authentic tragedy. The most poignant figure is the old, strong horse Boxer (Nathan Green), who works himself to death out of blind loyalty to Napoleon. Holding a massive hobby-horse, Green plays Boxer with a simple, easily confused earnestness that would superbly serve, say, the role of Samson in a biblical play. Wade Tilton finds laughs by giving literate, fatalistic donkey Benjamin a hee-hawing delivery reminiscent of Eeyore. But when misfortune strikes, Benjamin emits an anguished bray that stops being funny.

Jack in the Black Box doesn't flinch from the grimness of Orwell's satire. In a series of trumped-up show trials, cute lambs and other animals confess to nonexistent crimes, then face savage execution. One pig stages a Mao-style pageant in Napoleon's honor, and Squealer quotes outrageously false statistics about improvements of farm life. Religion even proves the opiate of the masses: A crow named Moses sings of a happy afterlife on "Sugar Candy Mountain" while the animals' drudgery continues unabated.

On stage Animal Farm evokes a distinctly 20th century nightmare -- so much so that you wish the production lingered longer on the post-revolutionary festivities, to contrast with the horrors to come. A chillingly effective play, Animal Farm puts a fresh perspective on the old joke, "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's the other way around." Some animals, it seems, are no better than men.

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