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BWW Reviews: Hypnotic Drama WAR HORSE Trots Triumphantly to the OC

Hands down one of the most hypnotic, creatively-staged plays ever conceived for the theater, the Tony Award-winning WAR HORSE -- whose National Tour is now on stage at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through February 3 -- is an utterly stirring feat of theatrical magic, expertly combining dazzling technical wizardry with a touching story of hope and perseverance. Using remarkable life-size animal puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company, which are then brought to jaw-droppingly realistic life by an ensemble of expert puppeteers, this superb production is a moving, honorable tribute to those that have suffered through the horrors of modern warfare.

Originally produced for the London stage in 2007 by The National Theatre of Great Britain before opening a successful Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theatre in 2011 (which yielded five Tony Awards including Best Play), WAR HORSE is an ingeniously-devised epic drama that depicts the precious, unwavering relationship between a young man and his intelligent beast (The play was also later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg).

The simple yet gripping story -- based on the best-selling YA novel by Michael Morpurgo -- tracks the life of Joey, a once young foal sold off at an auction in rural Devon, England in 1912. Won by town drunk Ted (Todd Cerveris) after a heated bidding war with his older brother Arthur (Brian Keane), Joey is taken to his new farm home, much to the frustrated protests of Ted's wife Rose (Angela Reed), who is furious that Ted had used that month's mortgage payment to buy Joey. But Ted's teenage son Albert (the very likable Andrew Veenstra), however, is delighted by his father's impulsive purchase.

Soon Joey blossoms -- under the patient, loving tutelage of his young, caring "master" -- into a steadfast, loyal, highly-intuitive work horse. The two form a deep, unbreakable bond...that is, until Joey is forced into combat during the outbreak of the first World War. As recruitment for soldiers and supplies grips the countryside, Joey is sold off to the war effort by Ted -- without Albert's consent. Devastated by his four-legged friend's shocking departure and afraid for Joey's well-being, Albert eventually fakes his age and illegally enlists in the army, in hopes of finding his beloved horse and bring him home to Devon.

Meanwhile, in the midst of hard labor alongside another army horse, Topthorn, Joey is captured with his British army unit in France by an invading German contingent, which includes the affable Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May). Both Joey and Topthorn are then put to work, this time for the German army, showing prowess in pulling carts of dead bodies through the French terrain.

As the war rages on, Friedrich's loving admiration of all horses -- and his budding friendship with a young local villager Emilie (Lavita Shaurice) -- soon helps reverse his personal stance on the war. An opportunity for escape comes after an attack decimates his unit, sparking an idea in Friedrich to switch identities with one of the deceased German soldiers and to desert the German fight altogether.

The parallel journeys that both Joey and Albert each travel within the scope of this new kind of war -- one that employs new technologies like rapid-fire guns, all-terrain tanks and flesh-piercing barbed wire -- make up the bulk of the play's riveting progress. Much of the story is also told through haunting musical chants and rough, animated sketches that are projected above the action. At the edge of our seats, we all wonder... Will Albert and Joey ever reunite amidst all this destruction and devastation?

Beautifully poetic as it is marvelously innovative, WAR HORSE is, by any measure, an astonishing triumph in stage-craft. Aside from the complex puppets (animal and otherwise) that populate the play -- themselves wonderful works of art -- the gorgeous, animated "sketches" that are projected on a gigantic ripped piece of parchment floating above the actors feel like moving paintings, helping to illustrate the story by adding a bit of a legend/fable quality to it. The play's clever use of shadow and light are also quite stimulating, providing appropriate moods and moments that further heighten the drama.

To that end, a plethora of kudos must be bestowed on Rae Smith, credited for this play's original sets, costumes and drawings; Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for the puppet designs; Paule Constable and Karen Spahn for the beautiful lighting; and Toby Sedgwick for choreographing the play's movements (animal or otherwise). Bijan Sheibani directed this US National Tour, taking the reigns, no pun intended, from original co-directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris.

Never has such imaginative technology worked in favor of a play's storytelling than it does so magnificently in WAR HORSE. Instead of acting as a distraction to the story (even though, admittedly, it's a paper-thin plot), the show's use of puppetry and animated backgrounds actually enhance the show tremendously, helping to visually trigger many of the play's emotional touchstones and fill in the many gaps the dialogue may not convey so well on its own.

And speaking of the dialogue... I don't think it's much of a stretch for me to point out that, perhaps, I am not alone in feeling a bit perplexed by the play's authentic, heavily-accented speeches from the cast. Whether in the Queen's English or French or German, most of these exchanges whiz by like incomprehensible jabbering. Thus, these visual aids certainly help. These remarkable visual innovations are smart, non-verbal tools that improve the way we follow the narrative along, even if much of the spoken dialect is indecipherable.

But, luckily, some things in life -- like fear, pride, love, and compassion -- just transcend translation.

Funny enough, that's a recurring theme echoed in the play's story itself: the inability to communicate, causing much misunderstanding. Of course, there's miscommunication between humans and horses; after all, only one of these two species actually speaks. Then there's miscommunication caused by language barriers, one of many instances of which is hilariously depicted when a German soldier and a British soldier try to aid a trapped horse together. And then, on a deeper level, there's the miscommunication between father and son -- as shown vividly in the tumultuous relationship between Albert and his stubborn father.

But perhaps the most pleasant surprise of WAR HORSE is that, in a way, the play is almost a stage musical as well. Music plays a significant part in the show, and much of it is sung by a character identified simply as "Song Man" played in the drama by John Milosich. Dressed as one of the villagers, Milosich -- accompanied by Nathan Koci on the accordion -- sings lovely musical verses like an omniscient narrator that enters and exits fluidly throughout the play. Sometimes, certain individual characters and even the entire ensemble bursts forward in song directly to the audience, proving to be quite a rousing ingredient to the mix.

While the human cast -- particularly Veenstra, May, Reed and Cerveris -- provide extraordinary, moving performances that bring a lot of humor and emotion to the tableau, there's no denying that the play's ultimate star is Joey, a massive mechanical creation of movable parts, straps and hinges that is just as alive as its human co-stars. Who would have thought that an inanimate object could be so full of life?

Joey's "soul," so to speak, is provided by his puppeteers/handlers: Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger. From a playful flick of a tail to a snort of frustration, Joey and, in fact, all the animals, are manipulated in such a brilliant, purposeful way that they all feel like real, living, breathing masses of flesh and bone. After a while, you don't even notice the humans beneath the wires and rods -- but you can certainly feel their humanity.

In one of the most shudder-inducing sequences of the play, one of the horses dies of exhaustion and fatigue. As it writhes on the floor while its last bits of life evaporate from its body, its three puppeteers -- in choreographed, eloquent unison -- slink out of the horse's body and somberly walk away, leaving behind a truly lifeless corpse.

Talk about art imitating life... and so very, very realistically, too!

Aside from Joey, there are 20 puppets in all, ranging from a scene-stealing busy-body goose (puppeteered by Jon Hoche) to flying swallows that circle and dive overhead. There's also Topthorn, a rival horse with a mean streak puppeteered by Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti, and Aaron Haskell; and horses Coco (Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley) and Heine (Grayson DeJesus and Jason Loughlin). Joey as a young foal is handled by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, and Nick LaMedica. Every puppeteer has mastered every nuance of an animal's mannerisms in absolute detail.

The work of these incredible artists -- from the actors and the puppeteers to the scenic and puppet designers -- is certainly a huge testament to the power of what live, theatrical stage-craft can achieve. And WAR HORSE is a living, breathing example of what is possible when these elements are combined. Bravo!

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos by © Brinkhoff and Mögenburg. From top: Albert (Andrew Veenstra) rides Joey (John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger); Albert prays; Topthorn readies for battle.


Performances of War Horse at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, February 3. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

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From This Author Michael L. Quintos