Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Jaw-dropping Production of War Horse
Also see Richard's review of Circle Mirror Transformation
This 2011 Best Play Tony Award winner makes a great evening out of a less-than-great script. Nick Stafford's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel was brought to the stage by the National Theatre of Great Britain and then re-staged for Broadway, and now the U.S. national tour.
Joey is a natural-born hunter bought at auction by Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris), a drunken Devonshire farmer, mainly to spite his more successful brother Arthur (Brian Keane). Ted's 16-year-old son Albert (Andrew Veenstra) takes care of Joey, and the boy and horse immediately form a bond. Many things happen to Joey, including Albert, under paternal pressure, training him to pull a plough. The year is 1914 and when the First World War breaks out, Ted sells Joey to the British Army. A heartbroken Albert lies about his age and enlists, in the hope of being reunited with his beloved steed. His quest gets the audience all the way to 1918 which takes up the second act of the play.
War Horse is sentimental, and some scenes seem like an old fashioned melodrama, but it doesn't feel untruthful. The underpinning of anger about war is ages old and always new. World War I is the perfect crucible since this was the last of the "glamour wars" and the first of the modern ones. In War Horse terms, it is the war where cavalry charges meet machine guns.
The Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa also brings to life a horse named Tophorn, plus a goose and the odd vultures, but Joey is their main triumph. You could say this is Equus meets The Lion King. However, there is nothing in The Lion King as earth shattering as this show's first elicitation of the shock of battle. All of this is accomplished through a confluence of elements by Rae Smith, who designed the set, costumes, and the exquisite drawings which are projected on a glowing muslin sash hanging over the set. There are overwhelming staged set pieces, such as the plowing competition, the cavalry charges, and Joey's stunning transformation from colt to stallion. The music of Adrian Sutton is breathtaking, and stupendous lighting by Paule Constable and, above all, the projections by 59 Productions are uncannily plain, clear and economical.
War Horse has a huge cast, and each gives a vivid performance that is more monolithic, and less soulful than the puppets. All told, War Horse is a mesmerizing experience.
War Horse plays through September 9th at the Curran Theatre, Geary Ave, San Francisco. For tickets 888-746-1799 or on line at www.shnsf.com. For more information on the tour, visit warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour.