Don’t Bring a Horse to a Trench Fight

There are two ways of looking at War Horse. Both points of view are equally true, but it comes down to a matter of taste. One is that the puppets are easily the best thing about the play. The other is that the show would be pointless without them.

Joey and Topthorn in War Horse. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Adapted by playwright Nick Stafford from the 1982 British children’s novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse debuted in 2007 at London’s National Theatre and went on to become a huge it on the West End and Broadway, won multiple 2011 Tony Awards (including best play) and now is making its San Francisco debut at the Curran Theatre courtesy of SHN. Last year’s Steven Spielberg movie was based on the same book and not so much on the play, although it uses a similar narrative approach (the book is from the point of view of the horse, which isn’t going to work in either performance medium). And of course the movie uses real horses and CGI rather than puppetry.

It’s the story of a magnificent thoroughbred named Joey owned by a struggling farm family in Devon. When World War I breaks out and the army comes to town enlisting men and paying good money for horses, the father sells the horse behind his son Albert’s back, despite having told the boy it was his to keep. So Albert lies about his age and enlists to go find his horse on the battlefields of France. Meanwhile Joey somehow survives as rider after rider is killed and unwittingly defects from the British to the German side.  Can they somehow find each other? Will they manage to be pretty much the only two living beings in the whole damn war to make it out alive?  Well, you’ll see.

The play isn’t a musical, though there’s plenty of singing in it. A wandering balladeer (John Milosich) who’s not otherwise part of the story croons lovely and portentous folk songs by John Tam, often accompanied by an accordionist sidekick (Nathan Koch) and occasionally by the large ensemble. Sometimes a few mourning women will sing a tune, or soldiers sailing off to war, but characters never just burst into song the way they do in a musical. The songs here are to build atmosphere, much like Adrian Sutton’s swelling, sentimental, cinematic score.

The real stars of the show are the horses, and they’re magnificent, crafted by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company, an outfit in South Africa. Each manipulated by three skilled puppeteers standing around and under them like omnipresent stable hands, the life-size horses twitch, rear and move about with remarkable lifelikeness. (The horse choreography is by Toby Sedgwick.) The transition from Joey as a foal (Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica) to the full-size version (Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger) is breathtaking, as is his meeting with the larger and more tempestuous stallion Topthorn (Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley). Other unnamed horses stick to the background and don’t rate full horse legs, just the legs of the humans beneath them. There are also puppet riders in one striking battle scene, and other critters here and there—most notably an aggressive goose manned by Manley that threatens to steal the show in the early farm scenes.

The touring company is directed by Bijan Sheibani, preserving the original staging by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Rae Smith’s set looks deceptively simple—a large black empty stage with a large jagged strip of what looks like sheepskin or paper hung high above. On that strip are projected animated backgrounds in the style of pencil sketches, because an officer’s sketchbook is a plot point in the play.

Andrew Veenstra seems a sensitive, almost timid young man as Albert, but even if he doesn’t stand up for himself he’ll always stand up for his horse. Albert is clearly in love with Joey, talking to him all the time and promising him over and over that they’ll always be together.

His father, Ted, is a piece of work, a weak and prideful man who’s always getting the family in trouble. He spends the mortgage money on Joey in the first place to show up his prosperous brother Arthur, who was about to get the horse at auction. He almost loses the horse to Arthur when he makes a drunken bet that he could teach the thoroughbred to plow, and no sooner does Albert get them out of that mess than Ted sells off the horse to the army anyway. Todd Cerveris plays Ted with an appropriate mix of desperate bluster and deep shame, and Angela Reed is a stern mistress of the house as his long-suffering wife.

Brian Keane is puffed-up and crafty as rich uncle Albert, and Michael Wyatt Cox makes a plaintive whelp as his spoiled and cowardly son Billy. Jason Loughlin makes a noble leader as Lieutenant Nichols, the guy with the notebook, and Keane is a breath of fresh air as the good-humored but booming Sergeant Thunder, who rightly mocks the absurdity of Albert’s quest. Alex Morf seems endearingly overwhelmed as Albert’s nervously giggling wartime buddy, a private who’s just as lost as he is.

Andrew May is a sympathetic German officer who feels such concern for the horses that he deserts the cavalry and poses as an ambulance orderly to get them to safety. And yeah, that sounds like the most ridiculous cover story for cowardice that you’ve ever heard, but here it oozes with sincerity. He’s urged on by Lavita Shaurice as a little French farmgirl he befriends who tells him, over and over again, “No matter what happens, you must always take Joey and Topthorn away from danger.”

All the accents are very, very broad, from the Devon ones to the German and French ones. The accents sometimes stand in for foreign languages, as characters don’t speak each other’s languages but we can understand them both fine, so how pronounced and overdone they are is helpful in its way.

The story is, frankly, ludicrously implausible. There’s a fine line between thinking, “wow, that’s incredible” and “well, that’s not credible,” and this play crosses it so many times with its lucky breaks and amazing coincidences as the miracle horse and the miracle boy who loves him wander their parallel paths through the carnage that it’s hard to get caught up in the narrative’s throbbing sentimentality. When someone is blown right off his horse by a missile, it’s a great special effect, but it’s much too funny to be sad, even though the character’s a nice guy who we liked. What keeps the tale from becoming too mawkish is that pretty much everybody dies—which, when you’re talking about people who ride horses into trench warfare, is just about right.

For all the corpse-strewn fields, the impressive machines of war that are wheeled on and off, the expressionistic depictions of battle on the screen, and the booming of guns and bombs in Christopher Shutt’s sound design, the journey often feels very slow, especially on the battlefield—it’s less the fog of war (though there’s plenty of fog) than the slog of war. So it’s good that more often than not we have Joey and Topthorn there with us. They’re not just awfully impressive to watch, but they’re the most compelling and believable characters in the whole play. Aside from the goose, that is, who’s easily the breakout star of this show. If there’s ever a sequel called War Goose, I’ll be first in line.

War Horse
Through September 9
Curran Theatre
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #71 of 2012, attended August 3.

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