By Iride Aparicio

Pictures by: Brinkhoff/MoGenburg


L-R Nick La Medica, Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl as Joey &  Andrew Veenstra

SAN FRANCISCO, CA  -- There are plays that entertain us, plays that make us think and plays that make us laugh or cry. And once in a while, there is a play like WAR HORSE, winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Play, that does all these things, in a single evening.  

Emotionally, WAR HORSE  involves us immediately in its story. Physically, the combination of its multi-media effects and the exceptional performances of its actors transport us, vicariously, to the village of Devon, England, back in  the year l912, where the ring auction of  a six months old, gangling leggy foal with a white cross over his nose, is taking place. At the moment, we hear the loud voice of the auctioneer as two brothers Arthur Narracott (BRYAN KEANE) who wants the foal for his son Billy ( MICHAEL WYATT COX) and Ted Narracott, (TODD CERVERIS) who wants it for his son Albert (ANDREW VEENSTRA) are trying to outbid each other. At the end, using the money his wife had saved to to pay  for their house mortgage, Ted, who is drunk, gets the horse. Albert, calls it Joey.

His getting acquaint with his foal takes a lot of patience on Albert’s (VEENSTRA) A “touching” scene, during the process,  show us Albert in their farm trying to entice his shy colt to eat by standing backwards, close to the horse’s nose holding a bucket of oats with both his arms stretched behind him.

During the years, we observe the bond developing between Albert and Joey.  Also, as if to return Albert’s love, the  horse achieves the impossible. When Albert’s father and his brother make a bet that Joey could not learn to pull a plow, in spite that physically he was not the type of horse to do that type of work, Joey learned in a week. By now their bond is was so strong that Albert promises Joey that he will take care of him  for as long as he lives. WAR HORSE is an epic drama so there are many things contributing to the magnitude of its story, yet as its core is the love between the boy and his horse.

In the children’s novel by the same name from which the play was adapted, English writer MICHAEL MORPURGO structured his book in the first person, with the story told from the point of view of the horse. Because the novel’s structure would have been unsuitable for a play, in his skillfully adaptation NICK STAFFORD dramatized the story. The competent direction of the performers by US tour director BIJAN SHEIBANI, managed to put veracity into their roles.  

In this work, the acting, which includes instrumental music (NATHAN KOCH) and songs (JOHN MILOSICH) is flawless. Because of it, we are immersed immediately into the lives of  the Narracott Family: Rose, (ANGELA REED) the mother, Ted (CERVERIS) the father and Albert (VEENSTRA) their 13 years old son, an honorable lad with the courage to face death to fulfill his promise.

On the year 1914, World War I, the unprecedented catastrophe which gripped the world reaches the peaceful English Village changing everything. Complete cities are now being leveled by bombs, people are killed, families torn apart from each other. Billy joins the army, horses are needed for the English Cavalry and Joey is a horse. After he is sold by his father, Albert runs away from home.

In a series of scenes, WAR HORSE depicts the war. We see the Cavalry in action. The soldiers in battle, in the trench holes or riding their horses, The fields in the French soil with the horses pulling the artillery and the carts carrying the stretchers with the wounded to the hospital.


Andrew Veenstra &  John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger as Joey

Putting those horses on stage was made possible by the life-size puppets created by  the Handspring Puppet company.  Each puppet-horse is a master piece of engineering. Joey, for instance, has a cane frame that was soaked, bent and stained, and another aluminum frame along the spine lined partly with leather. The second frame allows the horse to be ridden by a person.  Stretched along the frame is a hosiery-like Georgette fabric with makes the “skin”  beneath the frame.  Joey weights 120 pounds and is 10ft long and 8 feet tall. It has 20 mayor joints. It is all handmade by 14 people and  it takes three people to operate him.

The group of puppeteers who manipulated the horses on opening night giving them "life" were: LAURABETH BREYA, CATHERINE GOWL and NICK LAMEDIA  (Joey as a foal).   JON RIDDLEBERGER, PATRICK OSTEEN AND JESSICA KRUEGGER, (Joey). DANNY YOERGES, BRIAN ROBERT BURNS AND GREGORY MANLEY  (Topthorn). DEREK STRATTON, and ROB LAQUI  (Coco)  and GRAYSON DEJESUS, and JASON LOUGHLIN  (Heine).

These puppeteers are masterfully in their art.  The puppet-horses look, move and even eat with realism. They lay on the floor, stand on their two hind legs, kick when upset, walk, gallop carrying a rider on their backs and move their ears and tails, to emulate the way horses express themselves. The horses even breath.

L-R Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui

Multimedia allows the audience to observe the war very close. To watch its destruction, to observe the wounded soldiers, the death of the war horses, the advances of the German Army,  the battles, to hear the bombs  exploding in the background. It makes us feel the experience.  When WAR HORSE ends, we feel chaged.

The National Theatre of Great Britain Production of WAR HORSE is being presented at SHN CURRAN THEATRE in San Francisco, as part of the SHN 2011-2012 Season.


For information and to order tickets go to http://www.shnsf.com or  call  888 746- l799

Highlights of WAR HORSE may be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_21DV4pHhrk&feature=g-user-u

The Creators of Joey, The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa’s TED presentation can be seen here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7u6N-cSWtY&feature=autoplay&list=PL77F9994B87DBC7A0&playnext=1