TFM Review: The Horse and His Boy by Alphonzo Alegrado
Photos by: Erickson Dela Cruz
Like many fans of C.S. Lewis’ beloved Chronicles of Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy was my favorite book. So when I heard that Trumpets would be staging an adaptation of the aforementioned novel, I was ecstatic. The appeal of this particular story was, to me at least, the unfamiliarity of it all. Because unlike many of the other books in the series, The Horse and His Boy does not focus on the Pevensie family, their friends, or even Narnia. Instead, our protagonist is a strange boy in a foreign land, beginning an exciting journey with a talking horse he has just met. It’s a great adventure, but it is also a children’s tale and one can’t help but label The Horse and His Boy as a children’s story. After all, Lewis’ books aren’t categorized under adult fiction. Appealing only to children and settling for that alone is not the way to go about making any children’s story. I have only seen a few children’s shows, and the results were less than exemplary. Would The Horse and His Boy fall into the same heap?
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The story begins with Shasta, the son of a lowly Calormene fisherman. Upon seeing the two together, one wonders how the they could possibly be father and son. Shasta’s hair is a platinum colour, while his ‘father’ possesses the typical Calormene features. In addition to the difference in their characteristics, the man clearly treats Shasta poorly. One night, they are visited by a Calormene nobleman mounted on the back of a horse. When Shasta leaves the shack, the nobleman reveals his intentions to purchase Shasta for himself. The fisherman argues with him, saying that Shasta is his only child, and more importantly, provides him with invaluable labor. The nobleman eventually convinces the fisherman to sell Shasta to him, and reveals that the boy is not really his son. Shasta learns of this and retreats to the stable where the nobleman’s horse resides. Shasta soon discovers something extraordinary; and an exciting adventure begins.
The cast of The Horse and His Boy is fairly large, or at least seemed that way. While it begins with only two characters, the Horse and His Boy ends with an entire army of people. Among this large cast are actors I will remember for a very long time; some I’ve been familiar with, and others that I’d only ever seen during the show. Reb Atadero plays one of the two title characters: the boy, Shasta, and portrays the eager and meek character well. A life with the fisherman is all Shasta has ever known, and Atadero brought an enthusiasm to the role that is essential to the show’s spirit. The most genuine performances came from the actors who played The Hermit, King Lune, and The Tisroc (may he live forever). The characters brought an air of authenticity to a show so deeply rooted in fantasy. The Hermit was portrayed by Raymund Concepcion, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that the other two characters were played by the same person: Steve Cadd. One could simply attribute the difficulty of recognizing him to the makeup, but Cadd’s performances were completely different and showcase what a true chameleon he is. The undeniable highlight of the show is Joel Trinidad’s portrayal of the Horse, Bree. From his naturally horse-like gait to his charming and boastful demeanor, Trinidad’s Bree is probably the most Narnian of all the characters, regardless of species.
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When I entered the theater, I was quite impressed with the sets. A map of Narnia, Calormen and Archenland was projected on various layered sheets, and I was excited to see what other ways projection would be incorporated into the show. The set consisted of massive physical props, as well as projections of scenery. One of the prominent types of props used were the shadow puppets. Resemblant of the Balinese Wayang, they were intricate and seemingly delicate, but held up well in the battle scenes. However, nothing on that stage was more impressive than the Narnian creatures and their powerful guide Aslan. The execution of Bree and Hwin are feats of theatrical engineering; with their glowing eyes and equine bearing, these spectacular costumes are some of the most incredible I’ve seen on any stage. I only have one small criticism, but it has more to do with the mounting of the riders onto the horses than the costumes themselves. The horses are made up of two parts, essentially the head and front legs, as well as the tail and hind legs, each part manned by a single person. When an actor mounts his character’s horse, another person, dressed in black, positions himself between the two halves of the horse and props the actor up onto his shoulders. However, when there is no need for the ‘middle man’ to be onstage, he marches off from venter-stage towards the wings and as a result, unravels the illusion created by Otto Hernandez. This can easily be remedied by placing the horses near the wings so that the ‘middle man’ can slip offstage, virtually undetected. Production designer Mio Infante stated at the post show Q&A that a problem for many shows in the country has been the budget and it is apparent that with The Horse and His Boy, no expense was spared. I’ve only seen a few shows that featured Infante’s production design, and I have to say that The Horse and His Boy is not only the best work he has ever done, but along with Otto Hernandez’s stellar puppetry, he has created the most technically impressive and dazzlingly beautiful costumes and props I have ever seen in a Filipino production.
Luna Griño Inocian’s script is a superb adaptation of Lewis’ book. The dialogue is natural, and the show is well-paced. Bringing this work to life could not have been an easy task, and together with Director Jaime del Mundo, they have spun a wonderful tale. Jaime del Mundo’s direction is fantastic in the sullen and somber scenes, pairing well with John Batalla’s exuberant lighting. However, it is the action scenes where the direction falls short. One scene that comes to mind is the chase of Aravis and Shasta on horseback. What should have been a thrilling scene turned out to be visually disappointing. No one expects the actors to gallop in place at the pace of an actual horse, but the illusion of could have been enhanced with the simple addition of fog and strobe lights or improved projection in the background.
Halfway through the show, I wondered why the creative team opted to do a play instead of a musical. The orchestrations heard in the show’s more adventurous scenes were quite good, and when the first act ended with a sublime duet from Shasta and Aravis, I became a bit upset that the show wasn’t a full-blown musical. Of all Lewis’ chronicles, the Horse and His Boy is the only epic. At intermission, I felt that the show could have gone even further had the creatives chosen to do a full-blown musical. The first act dragged on, but was peppered with the occasional engaging scene. In the second act however, the show is more than just redeemed from whatever small faults one could attribute to the first act. Gripping action, even more awe-inspiring puppetry, and a remarkably well orchestrated final battle, the second act wraps up the show in a way that the tag line promised, because the Horse and His Boy was truly one epic ride.
In the beginning of the show, the narrator tells the audience: “‘A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.'”. A direct quote from C.S. Lewis that rings true to myself and many lovers of ‘children’s stories’. Trumpets’ production does not pander to children, nor does it talk down to them. Instead, like all great children’s tales, it delivers itself fully, and connects with the viewer on a deep emotional level. Full of gorgeous visuals, exciting thrills, and heart-rending moments, The Horse and His Boy is not just a good children’s show. It is a remarkable show for all, regardless of age.
Have you seen the show? What did you think?