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More than 70 years on, the classic story of power and corruption feels as relevant as ever.

It’s cold and dark outside. A driving wind is beating against your window, and every time you open a newspaper or browser tab you see another sensationalist headline trumpeting some new assault on democracy in America. Would you like to take your mind off the current climate, literal and political, by sitting through a punishing stage adaption of the bleakest barnyard allegory the world has known?

Animal Farm at the Milwaukee Rep

Left to right: Melvin Abston, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart and Brade Bradshaw; photo by Michael Brosilow

The Rep is hoping that you’ll say yes. And they’re building a compelling case for why you should.

On Jan. 9, the venerable Milwaukee theater mounted their latest mainstage show, Animal Farm. Based on George Orwell’s 1945 literary classic of the same name, the story has been adapted for the stage by the late British journalist Ian Woodridge.

The play opens in a moldering meat processing plant – director May Adrales and scenic designer Andrew Boyce wisely chose to eschew the rolling hills of a quaint English country farm. The hard-edged geometry of the tiles and the crates and the dollies strewn across the set call to mind the bars of a cage, reminding us of the grim reality of post-industrial life, with its limited social mobility and entrenched power structures.

Animal Farm at the Milwaukee Rep

Left to right: Jonathan Gillard Daly and Deborah Staples; photo by Michael Brosilow

The lights go up on eight actors. Wearing grimy gray-white jumpsuits and skull caps, with black boots and driving gloves not unlike hooves, they are at once beaten-down, beastly-looking people and sad-eyed, all-too-human animals. Each actor in the ensemble plays multiple parts, picking up macabre animal masks (kudos to Izumi Inaba on the inventive designs) or donning prim suit jackets as needed to indicate who they’re playing.

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And the acting is uniformly excellent. Melvin Abston, Stephanie Weeks and Brendan Titley change their accents and mannerism as easily as their costumes, moving from role to role. Rep associate artists Jonathan Gillard Daly and Deborah Staples, as Benjamin and Clover, make a quick dash for the story’s moral center, playing the most sympathetic, fully realized characters in the script with aplomb. And Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, last seen on Broadway, in A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, soars as Squealer – the mouthpiece of Animal Farm’s porcine regime, forcing us to contend with the idea that we’re less removed from Orwell’s dystopian nightmare than we’d like to think.

Animal Farm at the Milwaukee Rep

Left to right: Stephanie Weeks, Brade Bradshaw, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Kelsey Rodriguez, Brendan Titley and Deborah Staples; photo by Michael Brosilow

Individually, each actor excels. But collectively they’re a tour-de-force, often moving as one many-headed beast, thanks to movement director Nancy Lemanager’s choreography – a welcome counterpoint to Woodridge’s generally compelling but somewhat static script. 

And, with the exception of one plodding, and horrific, scene (depicting an eight-animal execution in excruciating detail), the play is near-perfectly paced. 

A tight 90 minutes without intermission, Animal Farm hits audiences with a one-two punch at the outset of its opening scene, and keeps the blows coming hard and fast for the remainder of its run. It’s a bloody, brutal work, not for the faint of heart. But it’s also one of the sincerest, most powerful productions the Rep has staged in recent memory. One of the most uncomfortably relevant too.

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Animal Farm runs through Feb. 11 at the Rep’s Quaddracci Powerhouse (108 E. Wells St.). For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

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