Woody Weingarten

Reviews, etc.

Spectacular puppets make epic ‘War Horse’ admirable

Andrew Veenstra (right foreground) portrays Albert in “War Horse,” while Christopher Mai (left), Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui (underneath the superstructure) work the huge puppet. Photo: Brinkhoff.


My memory is a trickster so I can’t swear to it. But I do recall seeing George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” as a teenager in 1951.

It was my first Broadway show.

I had no inkling then how good Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were as actors.

I recall later watching Jason Robards Jr. and Fredric March in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”

For me, acting was king.

And queen.

Then came the gimmickry. My first glimpse of the theatrical trend was when the chandelier crashed down in “Phantom of the Opera.”

That was followed by the helicopter landing onstage for “Miss Saigon” and, much more recently, Julie Taymor’s gloriously imaginative giant hollow puppets and people-in-animal-costumes in “The Lion King.”

Lots of musical charm was sandwiched in between, of course.

Stagecraft ruled.

Now comes “The War Horse” with its semi-mechanical “star,” Joey, a 120-pound, 10-feet-long, 8-feet-tall walking, rearing and breathing steed that takes three puppeteers to operate.

He’s impressive.

But does a gimmick, even a spectacular one, make the price of admission to this magical melodramatic epic worthwhile?

My unwavering answer is, “Yes, yes, and hell yes.”

It was impossible for me not to gaze with delight at the horse puppets (Tophorn is sort of a co-star, a black counterpart to Joey’s red bay, but also arresting are Coco and Heine and a much tinier Joey as a awkward foal).

They become decidedly more real than the human characters — endowed with life-like movements, emotions and sounds.

It’s easy to forget the steeds are moving not because of sinews and bloodstreams but rods and cables and other apparatus, so it’s no wonder when “War Horse” ended at the SHN Curran, the opening night audience gave mild applause to the actors and a standing ovation to the anatomically incorrect stallions.

Before that point, the production was enriched substantially via a white horizontal screen across the center of the backdrop.

The images projected onto it — including World War I battle scenes, rainstorms, skies and buildings — markedly helped the action come to life.

So did the period costuming of civilians and soldiers, inventive sets and props that surrealistically and nightmarishly depicted horrific killing devices such as cannon, planes and barbed wire, and dramatic musical soundbursts that contrasted with the sweet hopefulness of a strolling Irish balladeer.

Only the unmemorable acting by a large cast of cardboard characters (whose dialogue occasionally was too muffled for those in rear orchestra seats) and a trite, predictable storyline were found wanting.

The emphatically anti-war play, strewn with dead human and horse bodies, covers from 1912 through Armistice Day in 1918.

The plot’s a snap to summarize: A drunk trying to outdo his brother buys Joey at auction. The new owner’s teenage son, Albert, bonds with the animal and trains him. The horse is sold to the British Army, and later rescued by a German coward. The teen searches for his equine buddy.

Spotty moments of humor (many provided by a comic puppet goose that’s predisposed to biting) lighten the production, but mostly it’s a austere affair in which war scenes dominate even Joey’s majestic presence.

And where the first section of the 135-minute Tony award-winning show is straightforward and clear, moments in the second act can be momentarily confusing.

Nothing, however, can compete with Joey trotting up and down an aisle.

Because South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company creations are so special, all minor criticism can be shunted aside unless you opt to stay home because, as one woman bemoaned, “You know how I hate war movies — well, this isn’t any easier to take.”

“War Horse” runs at the SHN Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, through Sept. 9. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $31 to $100. Information: (888) 746-1799 or shnsf.com.