Review: The Horse and His Boy

The Show: The Horse and His Boy, adapted for the stage by Luna Grino-Inocian from the novel by C.S. Lewis.

The Plot: The young slave Shasta and the Calormene noblewoman Aravis take flight to Narnia, the land that holds the promise of freedom anThe Horse and His boyd equality that they truly desire. In their bid to make that land, they must outrun the threat presented by Prince Rabadash, who seeks to forcefully claim for himself what was denied him. Can Shasta and Aravis reach Narnia in time? Perhaps they can, for they are accompanied by their fellows in flight, the Talking Horses of Narnia, Bree and Hwin.

The Company: Trumpets.

Directed by Jaime del Mundo.

Cast: Reb Atadero (Shasta), Joel Trinidad (Bree), Cara Barredo (Aravis), Jill Pena (Hwin), Mayen Cadd (Storyteller), Chino Veguillas (Tarkaan Anrardin), Robbie Zialcita (Arsheesh), Mako Alonso (Rabadash), Raymund Concepcion (Ahosta Tarkaan), Jun Ofracio (Haroun), Arya Herrera (Lasaraleen/Lucy), George Schulze (Edmund), Justine Pena (Susan), Nic Campos (Tumnus), Maronne Cruz (Sallowpad), Gab Medina (Corin) Jeremy Domingo (Aslan), Pam Imperial (Slave Girl), Matthew Barbers (Bree 1 Middle), Edrei Tan (Bree 1 Tail), Vincent Pajara (Hwin 1 Middle), Chesko Rodriguez (Hwin 1 Tail), Jhay Dela Cruz (Swing)

Running Time: Roughly 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Venue: Meralco Theater.

Book tickets here. 

One of the great challenges of reviewing the adaptation of beloved literature into another medium is, no matter how aware of personal bias a reviewer can be, that there are expectations anyway. In my case, the expectations were high. This is The Horse and His Boy, a personal favorite out of the seven books that comprise the The Chronicles of Narnia.

Be that as it may, the source material is well served by the book of Luna Grino-Inocian. C.S. Lewis writes very lyrically, which makes for easy enchantment by the series. Ms Grino-Inocian has managed to capture that quality, yet insert many quirks, humorous moments, and several opportunities for actors and audiences to explore the rich world of Narnia. It is a very strong book, keeping exposition to the required minimum without letting specific details get lost in the dialogue. The narrative pace is punchy, brisk, and doesn’t complicate itself needlessly to deliver a fine story.

It is such a good book in fact, that one cannot help but feel slightly miffed that it was not served as well as it could be.

The first moments

I was happy to come early and see that Trumpets was willing to unleash the stops for its opening night affair. Cast members of their previous Narnian production, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were in attendance to lend their support. Adding festive notes to the occasion were the fact that Mr Douglas Gresham, the stepson of the esteemed Mr Lewis himself, was in attendance and celebrating his 70th birthday; and that the costumes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were worn by various members of the company, reminding the crowd of the company’s rich history with Narnia that started in 1997.

Unfortunately, it also provided a signal that should have been given more weight had I been more attentive. The show’s producer, Mr Butch Jimenez, said with some aplomb that this production was a “nail-biter,” and gave the impression that the production had been completed with only very little time to spare.

It showed.

The performances

Reb Atadero and Cara Barredo do good work with their characters. Mr Atadero’s Shasta is a bit of a worrier, wondering if he’s doing the right thing, but going on ahead to follow his conscience anyway. A considerable amount of sincerity has to be poured into a role to get this kind of sympathy, and sincerity is a trait that Mr Atadero has in abundance. There is nothing facetious or guileful about his acting, particularly when Shasta, in a moment of gloom, wonders why his existence is so difficult.  This role is also a particularly taxing one, as Shasta appears in almost every scene in the show.

Meanwhile, Ms Barredo’s skill as an ingenue finds purchase in the role of Aravis. Unlike other ingenues however, the role of Aravis is more determined than most girls, and Ms Barredo has adjusted her portrayal to match that independent streak in her character.

A review of The Horse and His Boy cannot be complete without mention of the horses Bree and Hwin. Joel Trinidad speaks and acts as Bree, and gives us a humorous chevalier-by-way-of-destrier. His Bree is a little bit too sure of himself and has opinions that mask the insecurity underneath, which lends the character a certain charm. Jill Pena, on the other hand, gives us a Hwin that gradually gets used to asserting her mind (as seen in the original book!) This kind of faithfulness to the source text, from this fan, is highly appreciated.

Finally, mention of Mako Alonso’s Rabadash should be made as Mr Alonso’s portrayal of the insufferable and spoiled prince reminds us that petulance in the attitude of those in power is very much a dangerous thing. Children watching have a lesson to learn from what befalls Rabadash at the end of Act 2.

Touching on the trickier spots

The show’s own producer admitted that things came together at the last minute. If only they had come together well. While individual technical elements of the show reveal expertise, together the elements lack a sense of synthesis that detract from enjoying the book to its fullest.

A case in point: what should be the technical stars of the show, the puppetry behind the horses, aren’t fully utilized. Otto Hernandez, the puppet designer, has given us a small marvel in a 2- (sometimes 3-) performer  sized horse that can be mounted, steered, and look graceful with deft manipulation of the horse’s head. This should be something savored by audiences at first sight; instead, I got the distinct impression that something was distracting the audiences. It took some reflection, and then, when one of the horses turned sideways, it dawned on me: when there are three actors serving as the horse, suddenly you have a horse with six legs instead of four. What adds to the image of this jarring chimera is that from a sideways perspective, it also looks like the horse, who looked so graceful from a front view, now has three heads, two of which are growing from its spine. Unfortunately, this breaks the illusion that was so carefully crafted from another angle.

Still, the horses, and later, the lions and Aslan, are visual wonders, and much can be forgiven of this because of how beautiful they look (from certain angles.) But first, you need to get past the opening of Act 1, where the stage is decidedly…flat. There are moments that nothing is on the stage other than the actors. This is fine for other venues, but not the cavern that is the Meralco Theater. The lack of texture from either scenic elements or lighting makes the stage look like an oddly decorated box. Thus, it makes one wonder how the scenic and lighting design are supposed to interact. The stage is covered in what looks like oddly constructed dunes made out of white slippery fabric. These drape nicely, but don’t really echo or reinforce the lush texture of the puppets. When lights hit these drapes, they reflect all over the stage, and give off a glow. These are lovely when made to give off a pearly luminescence, but in other instances, look like fiery candy corns. Scenic designer Mio Infante and lighting designer John Battala are both masters of their fields, so it’s very jarring to not see their work mesh seamlessly with each other in this production.

Director Jaime del Mundo has made more with less. His previous work, Rivalry, in my opinion, had a much more difficult book to work with, and yet he gave it a sense of synthesis, of the elements working harmoniously together. Why the puppetry, scenic design, and lighting design don’t jive in this instance is a mystery. This is where I take my cue from Mr Jimenez’ words given earlier that night: this was a nail-biter. One wonders why things weren’t ironed out sooner rather than later, because the lack of cohesion shows.

Final thoughts

The Horse and His Boy is a decent play. It doesn’t deserve to get raked over coals. What it does need, I think, is a much closer look at how it was produced and edited. The source material and adapted book, as well as the performances of the actors, are more than decent. They are just let down by the other elements that are supposed to support their work.

I’d bring children and my students to see this show, but I wouldn’t call this must-see theater in its current iteration. I hope that in the coming weeks that The Horse and His Boy will be able to right itself.

Quick ones

  • In tonight’s show, the stage left monitor was a bit too loud; the canned underscored music (something I failed to mention, and am personally quite biased against) drowned out the voices of some actors during Act 2.
  • Fans of the original The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will enjoy the occasional reprise of some of the music from that production.
  • If watching on a Friday, try to come early, as the traffic can be rather rough; driving to Meralco Theater from Podium Mall at 6:00 p.m. took more than 30 minutes.
  • The middle sections of the Horses in this show are very strong, as their co-actors’ safety and performance literally rests on their shoulders.
  • Don’t expect a musical: the show has a tune or two (or three), but this is really more of a straight play for children. Don’t worry about it: the book is that good.

 

Picture c/o Joaquin Valdes. Used with permission.

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