Michael Morpurgo’s 'War Horse' comes alive on stage at Curran Theatre

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Magical animal: Christopher Mai
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“War Horse,” the 2011 Tony Award-winning Best Play riding into the Curran Theatre on Thursday, showcases the genius of Handspring Puppet Company.

Going strong for more than three decades, the South African-based enterprise that created the show’s equine protagonist is known for bringing seemingly inanimate objects to life with a surreal grace.

The creature sprung from the pages of acclaimed English author Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel of the same name. The story describes the emotional bond between a young boy, Albert, and his horse, Joey, that was enlisted to fight for the English in World War I.

“I was quite skeptical, I have to say,” Morpurgo recalls, describing when London’s National Theatre approached him about eight years ago about using Handspring’s creations in the show.

“I couldn’t marry in my mind how these two things would work — puppets and the first World War,” Morpurgo says. “… And then I saw a video from Handspring of a giraffe they made, and within seconds, I witnessed this creature became sentient and alive. It seemed to be breathing, feeling and taking in the world around it. Not as a giraffe moves. It was better than that — it was the  spirit of the animal.”

Adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, this production of “War Horse” (the story also was told in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 movie) features mesmerizing stagecraft. Human beings operating the horse, from inside, evoke palpable emotion from the audience.

That response initially surprised Morpurgo when he  witnessed the first official production, after two years of preparation, in London in 2007.

“I did not think the show would go to America,” he says.  “It’s a Euro-centric show, a Euro war. But I think the Americans got it better than anyone. Because they knew instantly it wasn’t about the first World War. It wasn’t about Germany, it wasn’t about Britain. It was about all wars. It was about victims that the horse represents.”

English accent in full bloom, Morpurgo describes another crucial element of the show: “You know what I think links it together? Funny enough, it’s the least commented upon thing in the show — the music. It’s the kind of music people don’t hear any more. It’s English folk song, the songs of the people and the soldiers. You have this extraordinary orchestral background going on. That’s what makes it. That’s what gives it this huge level of emotion.”

IF YOU GO

War Horse

Presented by SHN

Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m.  Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 9

Tickets: $31 to $100

Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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