Smart fare at an exciting new venue – Our Farm at Underground Arts

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Philadelphia artists and audiences have something to be excited about—a smart new play in a hot new space. This month, the New York-based collaborative Fresh Ground Pepper presents the Philadelphia premiere of Our Farm, an original work by Andrew Farmer, running at Underground Arts in the Wolf Building.

Nigel DeFriez, Claire Rothrock, Alex Johnson, Jaclyn Backhaus, Max Reuben, and Ryann Weir in Fresh Ground Pepper’s Our Farm by Andrew Farmer at The Cherry Pit in NYC; photo by Andrew Neisler. The talented Philadelphia ensemble includes Ryann Weir, Max Reuben, Roe Hartrampf, Claire Rothrock, Alex Fast, Grace Folsom, Jaclyn Backhaus, and Dave Scheffler, and stars Elizabeth Hess and Maxwell Eddy.

Directed by FGP founder and co-director Andrew Neisler, the story is an amusing and insightful re-imagining of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, told from the perspective of the maligned animals, and retaining the biting commentary of Orwell’s 1945 socio-political satire. Sadly, the adapted dystopian allegory remains all too relevant in our present-day belligerent world.

In defiance of their oppression at the hands of brutal mankind, TASRA (the Theatrical Assembly of Self-Realized Animals), reenacts the True Story of Snowball’s Farm in an attempt to set the story straight. Presented as a play-within-a-play by the group of aspiring animal thespians, the script (which employs the now popular device of direct-address interjections), is an animal-lover’s and misanthrope’s delight. It includes such cynical observations as “We mustn’t descend into an angry mob—that’s what separates animals from humans” and “You’re nothing but food—I’m an artist.” Punctuated by theatrical insider jokes (including a depressed donkey dramaturg, played with convincing dejection and grumpiness by Philadelphia actor Dave Scheffler; and hilarious auto-criticisms of the play’s “self-righteous finger-wagging” and “abstract minimalist bullshit”), the writing is at once funny and frightening, absurd and thought-provoking.

Elizabeth Hess as Snowball and Maxwell Eddy as Napoleon “waking up the audience”; with Dave Scheffler, Roe Hartrampf, and Max Reuben, in the Philadelphia production of Our Farm at Underground Arts; photo by Charmaine Caire.

The well-trained ensemble cast is fully committed to their roles as the rebellious fauna; all will surely have a bright future in edgy post-modern theater. But they also display a level of professionalism that extends beyond that of the average fringe performer. Especially fine are lead actors Elizabeth Hess as Snowball, focused organizer of the animals’ revolt and director of their stage production; and Maxwell Eddy as the sleazy anthropomorphic rival Napoleon, who brutally slaughters Snowball at the end of the first act. The intermission and second act are accompanied by the sickening smell of frying bacon that permeates the theater and should shock any carnivore into becoming a vegetarian, and any warmonger into a pacifist. This is alternative theater with a timely message.

Founded by a group of recent alumni of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2008, Fresh Ground Pepper provides opportunities for young and emerging artists to develop new ideas in a wide range of artistic media–theater, film, comedy, dance, the visual arts, puppetry, and even athletics. Presented as a monthly series at sites throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, FGP’s mission is to provide a casual and supportive atmosphere where artists and companies can bring new work into a common space for experimentation, feedback, collaboration, and growth.

Entrance to Underground Arts at the Wolf Building, on Callowhill Street, between 12th and 13th; photo by Gary Reuben. The neighborhood north of Chinatown is becoming a hot spot for artists’ studios, galleries, and now a great performance and exhibition space.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, FGP has a strong local connection. The co-owner and developer of Underground Arts is architect/impresario Gary Reuben who is dedicated to creating an active programming schedule in the nearly 11,000-square-foot basement space.   (Gary is the father of FGP actor Max Reuben, resident of Wynnewood, and graduate of Lower Merion High School.) The recent recipient of a $50,000 stimulus grant, Gary Reuben’s dream is to offer nightly events in the 116-seat black box theater, along with art exhibitions and site-specific installations in the outer lobby area. To achieve this goal, Underground Arts is committed to making its space available rent-free to struggling artists and non-profit arts organizations.

There’s still time to catch the limited engagement of Fresh Ground Pepper’s Our Farm in Philadelphia; it runs through January 23, with performances on Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 and 8, and Sunday at 4. Underground Arts at the Wolf Building is located on Callowhill Street, between 12th and 13th. Tickets are priced at $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors; they can be purchased at the door, or in advance at tickets@undergroundarts.org.

Tags

animal farm, fresh ground pepper, gary reuben, george orwell, our farm, theater, underground art

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