BWW Reviews: WAR HORSE Brings Heartwarming Tale to Nashville
This week Nashville is gifted the chance to see War Horse at Tennessee Performing Arts Center. It isn't often that a person can say that a horse is the main character of a play, but that's just what War Horse gives you. Set in World War 1 era England, War Horse explores the relationship between a horse and his boy. When the horse, Joey, is sold to the war effort, his owner Albert can't stand to be apart from him and runs away, lies about his age, and joins the military on a journey to find Joey.
When War Horse, a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain, headed to Broadway back in 2011 it took home five Tony Awards. After seeing the show on Tuesday night at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, I understand why. The beautiful puppetry and heartwarming story make it one of the best known straight plays in many years. The animals in the show are all puppets crafted Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company. These puppets, especially Joey, are really the shining stars of the show. While there are many talented actors on stage who play the roles of the humans, they are really supporting roles. Supporting the puppets and the actors who operate them.
Each horse puppet has three people that operate it. The audience can see all the puppeteers, but you're asked to see the puppets for what they are: living breathing creatures. There are other animals that are also operated by actors, including a variety of birds, and my personal favorite, a goose with a good judge of character.
Because the puppets are so intricate and such a central eye draw to the show, the set design, by Rae Smith, is a wonderful turn of simple. There is virtually no set at all, only props that serve as set pieces, and one projections screen above the stage that shows simple drawings and dates to carry the audience through the years and through the wide range of places to which Joey and those around him travel. Most of the set pieces are moved about the stage by actors while the action is happening on stage. People holding wooden stakes become fences and barns, some holding metal structures become a ship taking soldiers to war, and those with strands of wire become the barbed wire fence in no-man's land. While this could be seen as distracting, it is choreographed in such a way that it becomes fluid and as much a part of the show as the characters themselves, leaving the audience to, in a sense, block out those actors moving and operating the puppets and set pieces. Toby Sedgwick, billed as director of movement and horse choreography, has done a wonderful job in making this happen.
Albert Narracott, played by Michael Wyatt Cox, is Joey's boy. When they first meet, Joey is a young skittish colt and Albert is not much more than a child himself. Albert grows from a boy to a young man who has seen too much war and death and destruction. Cox is able to take his character and transition through the changes and horrors of growing up in a war, and he almost seems to age onstage himself. James Duncan, Brian Robert Burns, and Dayna Tietzen are the puppeteers of Joey. While I know the puppets are designed to have as many of the mannerisms and actions of a real horse, it takes someone (or three in this case) to make that happen and these three do an amazing job.
At one point during his journey, Joey ends up being the horse of a German military Captain, Captain Friedrich Muller, played by Andrew May. It was such a smart move to show the other side of the war, and how much it affected everyone involved. May took Captain Muller and made him a character that you could empathize with, even though he was essentially one of the "bad guys." That in itself is no easy feat.
I could go on and on about this show, but instead I have a piece of advice for you: go see it. War Horse is called a "Landmark Theatrical Event" for a reason and lives up to that name. I can promise you will never see another show quite like this one. Oh yeah, don't forget to take some tissues as well. You might... no you WILL need them.
You can see War Horse at Tennessee Performing Arts Center through June 8. Tickets can be purchased on their website HERE or by calling the box office at 615-782-4040. If you haven't seen a show this season, let it be this one. You won't regret it.