BWW Reviews: WAR HORSE Weaves a Spell of Sublime Storytelling in Austin
Imagine the sound of 2,900 people holding their breath in a moment completely suspended in time. In complete silence, audience members wipe away tears, and all you hear is the sound of your own heartbeat. This is just one of many powerful moments that I experienced during Tuesday night's performance of War Horse at Bass Concert Hall. Though the production arrives in Austin armed with serious credentials (it received no less than five Tony Awards at the 2011 ceremony, including Best Play), I was truly not prepared for what a visceral and emotional effect this show was going to have on me. Based on the best-selling 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and set in both rural Devon, England and war-torn France during World War I, War Horse is truly a perfect marriage of art, music, choreography and storytelling.
The story of War Horse unfolds from the perspective of Joey, the horse of a young Devon boy named Albert Narracott, who becomes a stoic witness to the hellish world of the First World War. Similar to the tale of The Red Violin, the audience journeys with and fears for the destruction of this beautiful creature as it changes hands and moves deeper into danger. The play opens with the sublime Scottish hymn, "Only Remembered", delivered in the most authentic, powerful manner by the vocalist John Milosich, causing me to wonder if this play, which contains a symphonic underscoring peppered with traditional song, might be a musical in disguise. At first only the lonely honesty of Milosich's voice is heard, but he is then joined by the glorious thunder of a full men's chorus. This effect instantly transports the audience back in time, setting the pieces of this finely oiled machine into motion.
During each moment of the play, one feels as if they're being pulled into the middle of a magnificent masterpiece of art-in-motion, with every tiny facet, every small detail, expertly envisioned and executed. For example, there is a brilliant scene in which the young soldiers and their horses are photographed as they head off to war. Every time the burst of a camera flash occurred, the ensemble would freeze in a tableau while the main characters had a scene downstage. The static image behind the main characters, reminiscent of classic war-time photographs, assumed a poignancy that reminded the audience of the mass of vibrant young men devoured by war, their youth and vitality preserved only in pictures. All of the show's action takes place beneath the backdrop of a projection screen that is modeled to look like a giant piece of torn paper and on which black and white sketched images, ranging from farm land to battlefields, move with a life of their own. The stark beauty of these projections, by the group 59 Productions, are at times reminiscent of the style used in the 2007 animated Persian art film, Persepolis, which incidentally, also happens to tell the story of innocence lost during war time. Like so many aspects of War Horse, this was a perfectly executed concept, and so incredibly effective.
It almost feels wrong to single out any one particular performer in a cast where absolutely every performance was heroic. Michael Wyatt Cox played the pure and spirited Albert Narracott superbly. His powerful honesty within the role made the transition from innocent boyhood to a young man caught in the hellish daily reality of war painful. He is brilliant in his interaction with his horse, Joey, a beautiful life-sized Horse puppet which is operated by the most talented team of puppeteers in the business. Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica begin our journey with Joey as a foal. Then, in a beautiful burst of transition, Jon Hoche, Patrick Osteen and Gregory Manley take the reins and lead the audience through Joey's remarkable adult life with breath-taking (and breath-giving) performances. I can only begin to imagine how physically strenuous it must be to operate these huge life-like horses, on which grown men actually ride at times. While the puppeteers first appear as Devonshire farm hands assisting with the animals, they quickly seem to melt away into the scene and beyond the audience's perception-a subtle and skillfully executed effect. Thanks to the design from the minds of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, these animals are incredible works of art and are simply not to be missed. Every ingenious movement conceptualized by "horse choreographer " Toby Sedgwick is smoothly executed, from the twitching of Joey's ears, to the trembling of the mane and body with fear and right down to every single breath. At some point, I was desperately trying to remind myself that this was, in fact, a FAKE horse...and how could I possibly cry over a fake horse? That's how good the South African-based Handspring Puppet Company is. Even without their puppets, the puppeteers moved about the stage with ballet-like synchronicity and precision.
Other standout performances include Andrew May's beautiful portrayal of the German Captain Friedrich Muller, who only desperately wants to return home to his family. His performance was a favorite of mine, and I guarantee that every member of the audience fell in love with this man as well. Ted and Rose Narracott, played by Gene Gillette and Maria Elena Ramirez were authentic and brilliant as well, navigating the difficulties of poverty, pride and regret as Albert's parents.
I'm not sure that I can adequately describe just what an incredible experience War Horse is. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, this play shook me to my core. In a lifetime filled with theatre, I can honestly say that I have never experienced, nor will I ever experience, anything quite like it ever again. And because I know that the rest of the audience felt the same way, I'd venture to guess that tickets won't be available long. Only running May 6-11th at Bass Concert Hall, you have a finite amount of time to experience this once-in-a-lifetime show. I was truly humbled by the creative force and vision of War Horse, and experiencing the power of this gifted cast is not something I will ever forget.
WAR HORSE, produced by Bob Boyett and the National Theatre of Great Britain for Broadway in Austin plays The Bass Concert Hall at 2300 Robert Dedman Drive, Austin, TX now thru Sunday, May 11th. Performances are Tuesday May 6th-Friday May 9th at 8pm, Saturday May 10th at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday, May 11th at 1pm and 7pm. Tickets are $35-$115. For tickets and information, please visit texasperformingarts.org.