On Theater: 'War Horse' is a winner

Those who have seen Steven Spielberg's excellent cinematic version of "War Horse" and are planning to catch the stage production at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts may be wondering how on earth live theater can duplicate the splendor and throat-catching armed conflict of the movie.

Very nicely, as a matter of fact. The theatrical version (which preceded the movie) is nothing less than awesome, particularly in its animation of the central character, a thoroughbred steed named Joey, sold into military service by a destitute English farmer and sought in the midst of World War I carnage by the man's heartbroken son.

Never have special effects ruled a play so definitively as in "War Horse." Although it takes three handlers to simulate the steed's movements — most naturally and beautifully, it might be added — the human factor pales in comparison to equine accomplishments.

Directed in epic fashion by Bijan Shelbani, "War Horse" fills the stage with graphic splendor while a panoramic rear-projection screen above the action depicts the atmosphere surrounding each scene. The combat sequences, and their attendant sound and lighting effects, are most impressive, even though some may find the battle scenes a bit excessive and overlong.

Andrew Veenstra renders a hearty account of young Albert, Joey's de facto master, while Todd Cerveris archly depicts the heavily imbibing father, whose patience at converting a thoroughbred into a plow horse is at its breaking point. Angela Reed is a fountain of strength as the mother, who exercises rigid control.

Others making vivid impressions are Grayson DeJesus as Joey's new military master, Brian Keane as a bellowing British sergeant, Andrew May as a German soldier valuing self-preservation and Lavita Shaurice as a young French girl attempting to communicate with him.

Star billing, however, goes to Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger, who together animate and "humanize" the proud and faithful Joey — two underneath the horse, virtually unseen, and the third outside, controlling the animal's head movements. Together, they function amazingly as they bring Joey to full-bodied life.

The horrors of war are reduced to heart-rending humanity as Veenstra and a German soldier, under flag of truce, combine efforts to rescue Joey from the painful clutches of barbed wire, then flip a coin for his ownership.

Atmospheric conditions are skillfully depicted as birds fly overhead and a squawking goose (manipulated by Jon Hoche) struts around the farmyard. The entire package of the show is immensely impressive in this extremely ambitious production.

It's pretty much of a guarantee you've never seen anything quite like "War Horse," which will be prancing at the center through Feb. 3. It's an epic production in every sense of the word.


Down-home fun in 'Southern Hospitality'

Those who have seen "Dearly Beloved" and "Christmas Belles" at the Westminster Community Theatre will know exactly what they're getting into when they visit the third play in this wacky trilogy — "Southern Hospitality."

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten created the ramshackle town of Fayro, Texas, and the goofy Futrelle sisters for the benefit of playgoers whose idea of sophisticated comedy is somewhat south of the Three Stooges. And the Futrelles have found a welcome home in Westminster, where director Greg Z. Newcomb and many of the cast members now have been aboard for all three outings.

This time around, Fayro is withering on the vine of economic collapse. New industry is badly needed, and there's a chance that a purveyor of Mexican food might set up shop in the town — if it's attractive enough. So the townspeople come up with a "Fayro Days" festival complete with a beauty contest, petting zoo and a Civil War battle reenactment (never mind that no North-South skirmish occurred within the Fayro city limits).

The show begins with brief introductory scenes of the various offbeat characters, then shakes and bakes the concoction and stirs it with the addition of a few newcomers. Some memorable performances emerge.

Chief among these is Cleta Cohen's middle-aged sexpot Honey Ray, the festival's high-voltage organizer and one of two beauty pageant contestants — running against an old grade-school rival. Cohen plays this role for all it's worth and then some in a terrific interpretation.

Another solid, if briefer, turn is delivered by veteran scene swiper Kip Hogan as a tyrannical old aunt whose visit raises instant animosity. Mary-Pat Gonzalez also scores as the more organizationally inclined among the sisters.

Tara Golson switches from heavy drama ("Proof") to featherweight comedy as the troubled wife of the town's temporary preacher (Robert Dominguez) — both of whom are among the unluckiest of gamblers. Karla Franklin is a kick as Twink, longtime fiancée of the listless town sheriff (Tim Heaton), who seeks nothing more than a good nap.

Another scene stealer is Sherman Wiggs Jr. as the village idiot who, naturally, figures highly in the story's resolution. Joan Meissenburg and Jim Perham function as the town's elder (but hardly wiser) citizens, while Mary-Ann Saranchak stirs up some dust impersonating a Civil War general.

The delightful Donna Lee Taylor has a nice cameo as a bemused little old lady drawn into the municipal madness. David Franklin makes his stage debut a wild one as a mysterious visitor.

If you're expecting humor on the level of Noel Coward, or even Neil Simon, you'd better stay home. But if you enjoy your laughs served up like grits and pancakes, with a slathering of farcical syrup, check out "Southern Hospitality" in this, its final weekend at the Westminster Community Theatre.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

If You Go

What: "War Horse"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Feb. 3

Cost: Starts at $20

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org


What: "Southern Hospitality"

Where: Westminster Community Theatre, 7272 Maple Ave., Westminster

When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (714) 893-8626

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