To refer to the five-time Tony-wining "War Horse" as a story about a young man and his horse would be a disservice. Yes, at it's core, the theatrical event current gracing the stage of TPAC's Jackson Hall is indeed just that, but thanks to the brilliant artistry of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, who've crafted beautifully realistic life size horse puppets, it's so much more.
Based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 classic novel, "War Horse" was, in 2011, also adapted for the screen by legendary director Steven Spielberg. The stage production, like the previous incarnations, is set at the dawning of World War I. As the story unfolds, a group of men gather in the English countryside at a horse auction. Central figures and subplots in the piece are introduced as Ted Narracott (Gene Gillette), a ne'er-do-well farmer does whatever it takes to outbid his successful brother Arthur (Andrew Long), whose son Billy (David Hurwitz) wants the foal for himself. What it takes in bidding the mortgage payment, much to the dismay of Ted's wife Rose (Maria Elena Ramirez), but to the absolute delight of their son Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox).
Upon first sight of the young horse--brought to magical life at the hand of puppeteers/actors Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica--both Albert and the audience are instantly in love with the foal whom Albert quickly names Joey. This initial scene rings true to anyone who's ever owned a pet. The instant bond between the young man and his horse is the first of many heart-wrenching moments. It's also the first of many opportunities for the audience to marvel at the meticulousness involved in making us forget the horses on stage are not living breathing things. When young Joey bends to drink water, the foal's legs spread to steady his frame, just as you'd see if observing a real life foal. The family goose (as brought to life by puppeteer/actor Gregory Manley) is also seen throughout the piece, injected a bit of humor in the story.
When Joey matures, the transition from foal to stallion merits thunderous applause from the audience, solidifying the acceptance of the horses seen on stage as living, breathing, majestic creatures. Whether it's a twitch of the ear or a nervous shake from adult Joey (at the hands of puppeteers/actors James DUncan, Brian Robert Burns, Dayna Tietzen), no matter how subtle, it's simply breathtaking. Speaking of breathing, even the syncopated rise and fall of Joey's torso as he 'breathes' is something to marvel at.
As the story progresses, Britain's involvement in the war becomes inevitable, but first there's another conflict between the two brothers when Arthur bets Ted that he can't turn Joey into a plow horse. With Joey once again the prize, Albert works diligently to train Joey to plow in just one week's time. Again the audience shows they're fully invested in Joey when he emerges triumphant in the plowing challenge.
The passage of time, as well as the change in scenes in gorgeously depicted throughout the play by a clever bit of set design and soothing unobtrusive narrative songs. Lieutenant James Nicholls (Brendan Murphy) is seen early on sketching various things he witnesses in the English countryside and those drawings come to life courtesy a large screen that stretches the length of the stage high above the action looking like a torn page from his sketchbook. As the action switches from countryside to the inevitable battlefront, bold charcoal renderings come to life.
It's interesting to note that the sketches and for the most part, the wardrobe and minimal set pieces are depicted in mostly dark hues, that is, except for Joey, and to a lesser degree, Albert. Joey's skeletal-like mechanism is a beautifully bright chestnut. Albert's vest is also a similar color, unconsciously creating yet another connection between the two for the audience.
Throughout the play, Spiff Wiegand and John Milosich, simply credited as Song Man (Instrumental) and Song Man (Vocal) in the program, are seen as villagers taking in the action and singing folk songs that mirror the action on stage. Much like the minimal set design, the inclusion of music in this way enhances the glory of the action, rather than detracting from it. Yes, there's a full orchestra in the pit accompanying the two men, but it's the horses that command the attention while the music perfectly adds to it.
The story takes its next turn as once again, Ted sees Joey as an opportunity to prove his own stature. When he learns the army is not only enlisting men, but also buying horses to serve, Ted quickly sells Joey to the British Calvary. Understandably, Albert is crushed, but he does receive a bit of solace when Lieutenant James Nicholls (Brendan Murphy) who had sketched Joey when he saw the two riding across the countryside, assures he will take good care of Joey. Arthur also sees the war as a time to prove himself in his community, but he does so by forcing his son Billy to enlist.
It is at this point that we are introduced to Topthorn (performed by puppeteers/actors Jon Hoche, Patrick Osteen and Gregory Manley). Topthorn, the complete opposite of Joey, is, of course, menacingly represented in black. When the soldiers and their horses arrive via boat to the battlefield, the sketchbook sketchbook above grows nearly completely black, reinforcing the association of the color with doom.
When Albert receives word that the Lieutenant has died and left him his sketchbook, Albert enlists in an effort to find Joey himself, thus fully moving the action to the war. Once there, he meets Private David Taylor (Andy Truschinski) the two young men bond. Their comradery offers another bit of good natured humor, much needed during some intense battle scenes as Albert searches for Joey.
Another subplot develops when Joey's new officer, Billy, is captured by the Germans. Eventually, German officer Fredrich Muller (Andrew May) takes charge of Joey. Muller, in one of the show's most telling moments, realizes the absurdity of war and utters something about being more than he's been bred to be. With that he decides to become a deserter soon meets a young girl and her mother when he hides out at their farm.
Eventually, through some beautifully written, acted and presented twists and turns that barely left a dry eye in all of TPAC's Jackson Hall, Joey is reunited with Andrew. Keep in mind, the story is based on a children's book, so that shouldn't really surprise anyone.
So, yes, "War Horse" is a story of a young man and his horse, but it's also as much a story about the absurdity of war as it is man's automatic desire to progress, no matter the consequences. In a crucial battle scene, when the above sketchbook turns from the black harshness of battle action to the blood red of those sacrificed, the glimmer of hope for the future is gorgeously revealed when the blood-splattered canvas suddenly blooms with red flowers, followed by a cloud-laced bright blue sky, the first colors seen in the sketchbook since the beginning of the play.
It's that unwavering hope, the hope of renewal, the hope of nature's survival against the mechanics of war and modern industry, the hope of a never-ending friendship between a boy and his horse that makes "War Horse" one of the most powerful theatrical experiences available to audiences today.
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