It’s hard not to look this gift horse in the eye.
Resting under a stand of Ponderosa pines with her mother, who is at least five hands smaller in size, her dappled white coat blends in with the dusting of snow that lies under her hooves.
Upon approach, she shyly comes in for a pet; her long, white eyelashes revealing dark pools as she tilts her head sideways to take a closer look.
A new visitor to Caravan Farm Theatre, Whimsy, the Welsh pony-thoroughbred cross, is about to appear in this winter’s sleigh ride production of The Gift Horse.
Whimsy won’t be pulling a sleigh, she is actually in the play, if all goes to plan, and you’ll just have to buy a ticket to the show to find out exactly what part she has.
“She is the horse of every girl’s dream. She looks like the moon and she is very sweet,” hints Caravan’s artistic director Courtenay Dobbie, who has co-written and directs The Gift Horse. “As this will be her debut in theatre, we still have to see how she will react to the other horses and the lights. We have Victor, one of our own horses, on standby just in case it doesn’t work out, but I think she will be great.”
With 16 Caravan regulars ––Belgians, Clydesdales and Fjords among them–– along with other horses coming to the farm this weekend to pull audiences through forest and field, this is one of Caravan’s biggest equine-filled productions to date.
“At the peak/height of Christmas, we should have around 25 horses here,” said Dobbie. “The audience will walk under boughs of trees to the stud pasture where the show will start and then the sleighs will whisk them away to three scenes in the wilds before they come back to the last scene.”
With the proverb “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” in mind, Dobbie, along with Erin Mathews have created a fairytale with a universal Christmas message for audiences to witness.
Fellow graduates of Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre school, Dobbie and Mathews have written a number of plays together, mostly for Vancouver’s Theatre Melee which they helped found.
“We started working on this play the week after our summer show closed,” said Dobbie. “We have a good process and come up with ideas quickly.”
Based on an old Japanese folk tale called Moon Flower, The Gift Horse follows the story of a couple yearning for a child, but are unable to have one. Seeing their despair, the moon one night comes through the couples’ kitchen window and offers up one of its own children, under one condition: they must return the girl when she turns 18.
“The mother accepts but the father says ‘no, it’s not a good idea, a child is too precious to give back,’ But the wife really wants the child so he gives in,” said Dobbie.
Like A Christmas Carol, which Caravan presented as its winter sleigh ride production last year, the story is about a journey, and what the father has to go through in accepting a child he comes to love, but will one day have to give back.
“It’s not a Scrooge thing, but it is about finding love,” said Dobbie. “Love is there from the beginning. He doesn’t want to let her go and that’s when the moon returns with a message: to love fully no matter what the circumstances… It’s about love, family and commitment. A journey needs that arc, and there is always that at Christmas; the obstacle in life that we have to break free from. We need that kind of catharsis this time of year.”
Besides Whimsy, Dobbie has a human cast hailing from Toronto and Vancouver to play the parts of the father Jun (Tim Machin), mother Rina (Rachael Johnston) and daughter Suki (Agnes Tong). Adam Underwood and Sarah Mae Redmond round out the cast to play Harvey/Tadashi and the Moon, respectively, while Caravan resident Kim White will play a wandering minstrel (and horse handler) along with fellow musician Tom Jones.
Set designer Phillip Tidd, costumier Erin Macklem, lighting designer Stephan Bircher and props designer Scott Crocker are all working on creating the Japanese-influenced setting with whatever nature presents them with.
“The Japanese have a beautiful esthetic for snow. Winter is a big thing for them as well so we have lots of imagery to draw from,” said Dobbie.
Volunteers have also gathered at the farm for a massive work bee to make decorations and other props.
“We’re turning one of our massive pine trees into a Christmas tree,” added Dobbie. “There is a fairytale aspect of Caravan with the trees and the snow. It’s our own magic, winter bubble.”
The Gift Horse previews to three sold-out shows at Caravan Farm Theatre this weekend and Tuesday and continues with three shows nightly until Dec. 31, except Dec. 19, 24 and 25. Call or visit the Ticket Seller in the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, at 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca, to find out about availability.