Courtesy photoSuperior stagecraft: The star of “War Horse” is the amazingly lifelike creature created by Handspring Puppet Company and operated by Jon Riddleberger

Courtesy photoSuperior stagecraft: The star of “War Horse” is the amazingly lifelike creature created by Handspring Puppet Company and operated by Jon Riddleberger

Equines transcend the humans in ‘War Horse’

It’s all about the horse, of course.

In “War Horse,” the National Theatre of Great Britain’s popular drama, an English village teenager, Albert, is parted from his beloved equine, Joey, who’s been sold to the army and shipped off to France during World War I.

Albert, pining away, is too young to enlist, but in despair manages to do so anyway, seeking Joey.

This adaptation by Nick Stafford from the book by Michael Morpurgo proves to be an overlong and eventually tedious tale of endless, monochromatic warfare with a predictable ending.

Despite solid performances by the American touring company cast under the direction of Bijan Sheibani (original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), the principal characters are thin and cliché: loving, long-suffering Mum (Angela Reed); drunken lout  Dad (Todd Cerveris), who mistreats Joey and gambles away the mortgage money; brave and good son Albert (Andrew Veenstra).

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is banal. Some of it’s even muffled and hard to understand, what with assorted British, French and German accents.

But oh, the horses! Joey first appears as a skittish colt with a thrilling, humanoid whinny. In an astounding visual feat, he suddenly transforms into a full-fledged, adult horse.

Joey was created, as are all the life-sized puppets in this show (including a comical, flapping goose on a wheel, ominous vultures and several other war horses), by the magnificent Handspring Puppet Company.

He’s wrangled by three adept and deeply empathetic puppeteers, and, as is so often the case with well-designed and -animated theatrical puppets, is somehow more eloquent than a live horse could ever be and yet entirely horsey in every fiber of his 120-pound, aluminum-framed body, complete with tossing mane, inquisitive ears and thrashing tail.

When he pranced up the aisle of the Curran Theatre, you could almost smell him.

The beauty of the equine illusion matches the stunning visuals of this production altogether. With a set (by Rae Smith) that mainly features a horizontal strip of projections — some of them simple landscape sketches, others atmospheric videos — on a stark, black background, and dramatic lighting (originally designed by Paule Constable), the show is gorgeous.

And the background music by Adrian Sutton is supplemented by wandering minstrel John Milosich singing plaintive songs and ballads that conjure the longing and loneliness of the wartime scenario.

Sentimental as this boy-and-beast romance is, it’s also undeniably affecting.

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

artsentertainmentHandspring Puppet CompanyWar Horse

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