BWW REVIEW: WAR HORSE Is a Simple Story Spectacularly Told
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Spofford in association with Handspring Puppet Company; sets, costumes and drawings by Rae Smith; puppet design, fabrication and direction by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; original lighting, Paule Constable; additional lighting and adaptation, Karen Spahn; director of movement and horse choreography, Toby Sedgwich; animation and projection design, 59 Productions; music, Adrian Sutton; songmaker, John Tams; sound, Christopher Shutt; additional sound and adaptation, John Owens; music director, Greg Pliska; fight director, Tom Schall; original co-direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; US tour direction by Bijan Sheibani
Cast on opening night:
The Horses: Joey as a foal, Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, Nick LaMedica; Joey, Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger; Topthorn, Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns, Gregory Manley; Coco, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui; Heine, Grayson DeJesus, Jason Loughlin
The People: Song Man (instrumental), Nathan Koci; Song Man (vocal), John Milosich; Lieutenant James Nicholls, Doctor Schweyk, Paddy, Jason Loughlin; Arthur Narracott, Sergeant Thunder, Brian Keane; Billy Narracott, Ludwig, Michael Wyatt Cox; Albert Narracott, Andrew Veenstra; Ted Narracott, Colonel Strauss, Todd Cerveris; Chapman Carter, Corporal Klebb, Jason Manfred, Chad Jennings; Allan, Private Klausen, Michael Stewart Allen; Thomas Bone, Private Schabel, Sergeant Fine, Jason Alan Carvell; John Grieg, Derek Stratton; Rose Narracott, Angela Reed; Priest, Captain Friedrich Muller, Andrew May; Captain Charles Stewart, Grayson DeJesus; Private David Taylor, Alex Morf; Paulette, Megan Loomis; Emilie, Lavita Shaurice; Matron Callaghan, Catherine Gowl; Annie Gilbert, Laurabeth Breya; Veterinary Officer Martin, Matt Hostetler; Goose, Gregory Manley
Now through October 21, presented by Lexus Broadway in Boston, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston; tickets start at $33 and are available through Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, online at www.BroadwayinBoston.com, or at the Box Office at 539 Washington Street Monday through Friday, 10am – 5pm.
At its most basic, War Horse, the 2011 Tony Award-winning Best Play currently on tour at the Boston Opera House through October 21, is a simple tale of a boy and his horse. But thanks to the inspired genius of original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, their brilliant design team, and the remarkable vision and craftsmanship of Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse is a spectacular theatrical phenomenon.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s book that was also made into an epic movie by Steven Spielberg, War Horse reveals the horrors of war – and the humanity that somehow survives it – through the eyes of Joey, the valiant part draft horse, part thoroughbred conscripted into the British Cavalry during WWI. When Joey’s young owner Albert (Andrew Veenstra) follows him to the front after his unsympathetic father Ted (Todd Cerveris) sells him to the army for 40 pounds, both Joey and Albert do whatever they must to survive and reunite. Theirs is an emotionally shattering journey through unimaginable circumstances. Their innocent awakenings to the ravages of war make the insanity of such agonizing destruction emotionally devastating and unbelievably real.
Joey first becomes the mount for the kindly Lieutenant James Nicholls (Jason Loughlin) and is paired in battle with a magnificent black stallion named Topthorn. Initially competitive, with Topthorn quickly asserting his dominance as the alpha male, the horses soon become inseparable companions and care for one another when danger looms. Later both horses are captured by the Germans and put into service in the ambulance corps. There they are protected and cared for by Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May), a sensitive and war-weary veteran whose tolerance for death and jingoistic fanaticism has been battered to the point of defeat.
Meanwhile an underage Albert has managed to enlist himself into the army and quickly sees action in France. He befriends the older but less assured Private David Taylor (Alex Morf), and together they face brutality and peril that turn them from naive boys into demoralized men.
As the parallel adventures of Joey and Albert unfold, War Horse catapults the audience into a vivid world of machine gun fire, hand grenades, piercing shrapnel, and twisted barbed wire. Bodies literally fly through the air, and the audience winces and gasps at every tortuous death and debilitating injury. But unlike the desensitizing special effects of a two-dimensional movie or video game, the action in the live stage version of War Horse is palpable. There is no escaping the dank, dirty, devastated countryside where vultures pick on dead carcasses and smoke still rises from homes leveled by bombs. The audience feels every scathing wound and agonizing emotion that the actors – and horses – experience. Yet from these ashes of war the triumph of compassion rises. Ultimately the immutable bond between animal and man is more powerful than any evil.
The most remarkable accomplishment of War Horse is the way in which Joey, a seven-foot-tall puppet of aluminum, wires, fabric and cane, is able to anthropomorphize, conveying his thoughts and feelings with absolutely precise equine movements and sounds. Animated by three puppeteers who literally breathe life into their creation, Joey prances, rears, eats, twitches, and snorts, reacting and interacting in ways that make him more human and heroic than anyone else on the stage. In one grueling scene, when Joey is hopelessly entwined in a tangle of barbed wire, we sob in empathy at his plight, feeling every ounce of his pain as he valiantly struggles to gnaw himself free. It is a shattering moment, and one that crystallizes for the audience the anti-war sentiment at the heart of the play.
As wondrous as Joey’s performance is, War Horse would not be as compelling if it weren’t for the complete suspension of disbelief his co-stars enable us to achieve. As Albert, his loving owner, Andrew Veenstra strokes, grooms, trains, and talks to Joey as any owner would with a cherished pet. The soldiers, too – British and German alike – tend to both Joey and Topthorn with a natural ease that makes us forget these horses aren’t the real thing. When the men ride, they sit confidently atop their mounts and move in perfect harmony with them. When the horses rear, their handlers keep at a safe distance, warily trying to rein them in.
The design team’s astounding special effects also pull us into the world of war unconditionally. Inventive lights, sounds, sets and staging transport us to the battlefields of France where Howitzers and armored tanks roll menacingly across the landscape. Digital images are also drawn in real-time on a tattered scrim above the set, illustrating and amplifying the action taking place on stage below. As the whistle of a missile is heard screeching toward a solider on horseback, a black line traces its menacing route. When the sound of bombs raining down on a regiment literally shakes the seats and rafters, black craters explode on the screen, and bodies hurl into the air, limbs akimbo.
It is mind boggling to consider the precise coordination needed to make war seem real in the theater. But War Horse accomplishes this magnificently. The impact is at times overwhelming, but it’s also riveting. Do not miss the opportunity to see this stunning piece of theater magic. Through Joey’s penetrating eyes, you’ll see love and war in a whole different light.