AISLE SAY San Francisco


Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted by Nick Stafford
Presented by SHN
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Based on Original Direction by Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St., San Francisco / (888) 746-1799

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"War Horse" is nothing short of a magnificent theatrical experience on all levels. When you look at the credits, you can see that it represents artistic collaboration at its best. It's hard even to know where to start, but we'll start with Nick Stafford, who adapted it from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, then worked in association with Handspring Puppet Company and co-directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The U.S. tour is directed by Bijan Sheibani.

The result is a gripping tale compelling told in deceptively simple terms. It all starts in Devon, England, in 1912 when a struggling farmer engages in a bidding war with his estranged, more prosperous brother to buy a spirited thoroughbred foal at auction. Much to his wife's dismay, the farmer wins the bid but squanders the mortgage money. His young son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), immediately bonds with the horse and calls him Joey. Two years later, when England goes to war with Germany in 1914, the father sells Joey to the English cavalry.

From there Joey undergoes a series of harrowing experiences, but through some lucky coincidences and the kindness of some people, he somehow survives. In the meantime, Albert joins the army to search for Joey and undergoes harrowing experiences of his own. It's not until four years later, on Armistice Day in 1918, that yet another lucky coincidence saves Joey and reunites him with Albert.

All of this unfolds with vivid imagination as Joey and three other horses are portrayed by full-size puppets created by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company. Each one is manipulated by two or three puppeteers, who bring the puppets to life as the horses gallop, rear, whinny, snort and otherwise act like real horses. Birds and a feisty goose are portrayed by other puppets.

The action unfolds on a set created by Rae Smith, who also created the costumes and drawings. Spanning the stage, the primary set piece is a swath of canvas suspended upstage. Drawings and other images created by 59 Productions are projected onto it to evoke settings as varied as an English village and a horrific battlefield on the mainland. Paule Constable adds to the scenic effects with the lighting, as supplemented and adapted by Karen Spahn. The director of movement and horse choreography is Toby Sedgwick. The realistic sound is by Christopher Shutt with additional sound and adaptation by John Owens. The music, composed by Adrian Sutton, is conducted by Greg Pliska.

The cast of more than 30 -- that's in addition to the puppeteers -- forms a cohesive ensemble and creates well-defined characters. They're led by Veenstra as Albert, along with Todd Cerveris as his loutish father, Ted, and Angela Reed as Rose, his supportive mother. Some of the other characters who stand out in the story are Private David Taylor (Alex Morf), who becomes Albert's good friend in the army; Capt. Friedrich Muller (Andrew May), the kindly German officer who contributes to Joey's survival; along with a French girl, Emilie (Lavita Shaurice). John Milosich is the Song Man who sings at various times, accompanied by an instrumental Song Man, Nathan Koci.

Hence, at the end of the two-act, more than two-hour show, the audience has been gifted with a touching story of a boy's devotion to his horse, an epic drama about the horrors of war, and a human look at the people who are involved in the war as combatants and victims.

And then there are the horses, especially Joey and his pal, Topthorn. They're unforgettable.

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