“War Horse” must be the only Broadway touring show I’ve ever seen where I didn’t know if the star would take a bow.
He did, finally, and the Belk Theatre crowd turned its admiration up one extra notch. We had already applauded the three puppetmasters who had operated the title character, but now we cheered the thing of wood and fiber and metal that reared and pranced before us.
Unless you see the show, you can’t fully imagine how much of a character Joey becomes. That doesn’t happen at once: We can’t immediately forget the four human legs protruding from his constructed body or the handler who moves Joey’s head so convincingly. But gradually, like the actor playing Albert Narracott (Alex More), we treat Joey as a living being. That moment marks the spot where the 2011 Tony-winning drama turns from a touching tale about a young Englishman seeking a lost pet to a tragic re-enactment of wartime horror.
If you have read Michael Morpurgo’s understated novel or seen the sentimental film Steven Spielberg made from it, you know this story. Albert’s foolish father buys the horse at a price he can’t afford, promises it to his son after Joey wins a bet for him, then sells Joey to a British officer to be used in France during World War I. The underage Albert enlists and heads off for the trenches, hoping to bring back his pal.
Adapter Nick Stafford and original Tony-winning directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Wilson kept the plot simple. Bijan Sheibani, who directed the U.S. tour, followed their lead: The narrative remains uncomplicated, the language basic, the sentiments straightforward. But the presentation, using the life-sized figures of Handspring Puppet Theatre, fuses sound and lighting and stagecraft in an ideal union.
We see a white gash painted on the black backdrop, looking like a slit in a trench from which to peer at No Man’s Land. Through the play, rain and dirt and shells and bombs fall across it in projections, as actors respond underneath.
The crossing of the English Channel, with soldiers singing nervously and horses uneasy in their traces, can be accomplished with something as simple as a few actors lifting and lowering the metal bow of the “boat.” Officers rushing into battle ride in place, as the projected background recedes – a simple, well-executed effect.
The humans become almost less real than the horses, because we’ve met them in so many films and books. The pacifistic German officer who befriends Joey behind enemy lines (Andrew May) might have been rare decades ago, but even he seems familiar now. The deaths of any of these characters move us less than the deaths of their mounts, because the humans had some choice (however small) in their fates; the beasts had none. (The play has been marketed as too intense for children under 12. Heed this warning.)
Virtually no one now lives who remembers World War I, which ended 95 years ago. At this distance, we might have trouble believing officers rode toward machine guns on horses, leaping over barbed wire, but “War Horse” makes this fatuity clear. (We never learn here which absurd pretexts started or sustained the fight.)
This play isn’t exactly an attack on pointless war-making, a drama about family conflict or a piece about creatures’ abilities to think and feel, though it’s all of those things. It’s about the bonds we form with family members, friends and animals, about what each of them expects from us and what we’re willing to give. Sometimes a beast isn’t just man’s best friend: He’s a soulmate worth charging into Hell to reclaim.
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