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War Horse

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For its range of powerful emotion and dazzling theatricality, this production raises the bar for what theater companies can produce when all the right elements are aligned. A searing indictment of war and its dehumanizing anguish is at the core of the story, and looking at it through the eyes of a boy and a horse is wrenching and poignant. Nearly a million horses were forced into cavalry combat against war weapons and most perished in the "war to end all wars."

Michael Morpurgo's book, written for children, was originally adapted by Nick Stafford into a story that takes on a mystical quality when executed by a host of actors and puppeteers. In its national tour it is well directed by Bijan Sheibani.

The story begins when brothers Ted and Arthur Narracott (Todd Cerveris and Brian Keane) vie for the purchase of a young foal at an auction. Their bitter one-upmanship is fortuitous, for Ted wins and his 15-year-old son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), falls in love with the horse, thus beginning a long journey of a horse and his master.

It is at this point in the production that the gifts of Handspring Puppet Company and Stafford come to life. The several horses are artistic creations imbued with so many realistic emotions that it is hard to remember that they are operated by puppeteers. As a young foal, puppeters Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica capture the tentative emergence of the young horse, Joey, at the hands of Albert. As their relationship grows, so does the horse, and the transformation of Joey into a full-grown horse is breathtaking. From this point on, puppeteers Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui expertly transform Joey into the most  riveting character in the play displaying recognizable emotions--fear, anger, trust, and loyalty. Though it is clear that the story must have a happy ending, its arrival comes with many cathartic moments throughout the production.

The thirty or so actors who make up the cast are excellent. As Albert's mother, Rose (Angela Reed) stands out as she rails at her husband for foolishly spending their rent on this horse. She, nevertheless, is nurturing as Joey is sold to the cavalry and is quite believable. Andrew May is also notable as Captain Friedrich Muller, Joey's handler during his time with the Germans. Both Cerveris and Keane acquit themselves well, particularly Cerveris as Albert's drunken father. As Albert, Andrew Veenstra tackles coming to maturity and searching for Joey deftly. 

Other horses are also created, in particular a dominating Topthorn (animated by puppeteers Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti, and Aaron Haskell). There are additional puppeteers throughout the run, but these were on hand on opening night.

The technical aspects of this play are integral to capturing the essence of the message. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are the puppet designers, fabricators, and directors of the puppets, and their skill is unmatched. The set (set, costumes, and drawings by Rae Smith) is also key to the success of the storytelling. On a wide slash of white like a giant sheet of torn paper that oversees the action, images of war and drawings depicting villages anchor the scenes. There are plenty of pyrotechnics that deliver the sense of war and destruction.

Other notable contributors are: Toby Sedgwick, director of movement and horse choreography; 59 Productions, animation and projection design; Songmaker John Tams with music by Adrian Sutton. Lighthearted moments are delivered via an energetic goose that shows up periodically courtesy Hoche.

Like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, War Horse puts a human face on the sacrifices made by ordinary people who answer the call to battle. The timeliness of this play resonates more clearly as we have listened to our leaders promise that a war will be short, and it never is. This is an extraordinary play and one that should be seen for its masterful impact.

Presented at the Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand, Los Angeles. Tickets $20-150. Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m.Sat. at 2 and 8. Sun. at 1 and6:30. Exceptions: No 8 p.m. performance Wed., July 4. Added 2 p.m. on Thurs. July 5, 19, and 26. No 6:30 performances on July 22 and 29. Tickets available at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org and 213-628-2772.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.