“War Horse,” the National Theatre of Great Britain’s spectacular stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name, came galloping, no, thundering, into the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, where it will be playing through Sunday, February 2nd.
The main attraction, of course, remains the stunning work of South Africa’s Handsprings Puppet Theatre, which designed not only the horse of the title, but at least four other horses, some vultures, some crows, and even, most humorously, a goose. But these are not your typical puppets. The two central horses in the story are as large as life, formed with an aluminum frame lined inside with leather for the puppeteers’ comfort and covered with a stretched fabric for skin. Each of these two large horses—the reddish-brown “Joey” of the title and his taller, blacker, and more fitful companion “Topthorn” each require three operators at all times, one at the head, one at the front legs and the third at the hindquarter. As they maneuver various body parts of the creature, head, ears, tail and feet, they manage to convey a distinct personality for each horse that allows us to feel sympathy for the animal and essentially ignore the puppeteers.
The horses and their operators will be required to perform any number of stunning stunts over the course of the evening, from rearing up in anger or fright, jumping over fences, getting stuck in barbed wire, hauling World War I’s wounded, and pulling a cannon up a challenging incline. The amazing thing is that as an audience we are with those horses all the way, pulling, tugging, silently urging them forward, as we forget that they are merely constructs but cast members of the show along with their human counterparts.
These remarkable achievements only work because they are in service to Morpurgo’s story, which has been ably adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford in collaboration with Handspring. Set in England in the years immediately prior to and during World War I, the tale tells of the bond between 16-year old Albert Narracott, the son of an alcoholic farmer, and a thoroughbred foal the father acquires in order to spite his wealthier, arrogant brother. We watch as the boy and the animal develop a mutual trust along with special ways of communicating as the boy imparts his knowledge to the horse, even at one point teaching him how to plow, a talent that will prove life-saving later on in the story.
History intervenes with declaration of war against Germany and Ted, Albert’s father, cruelly sells the horse to the British Army for service in the war. The underage Albert, devastated, will later surreptitiously join the Army on a determined, if seemingly misguided quest to be reunited with his equine pal. At the same time, Albert’s rather snobbish and cowardly cousin, Billy, is conscripted by his own father into the military, serving alongside the horse Joey. As the war worsens, we follow the parallel tracks of Joey’s adventures with first the English and later the German Army, where he and the much stronger Topthorn face their most grueling challenges, and Albert’s experiences as a private and then a lance corporal in the English Army.
Stafford’s book does not scrimp on the savagery of war, as characters we have come to know and identify with are killed and wounded with alarming regularity. The plot underscores the frustration and foolishness of war as characters bemoan their exhaustion and flirt with desertion and danger. As the world observes the 100th anniversary of the start of hostilities in Europe for the Great War, we’ll no doubt hear more about the absurdities and resentments that led to this war.
The work of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the show’s original co-directors, has been delicately and carefully recreated for the national tour by Bijan Sbeibani and a clearly hardworking stage crew who successfully manage the constant motion, clever sets, elaborate lighting and projections, while assuring that the puppets and their operators have plenty of room for their complex movements.
Rae Smith’s sets have been designed with an effective minimalism, which nonetheless immediately establish a specific place and time. Her hundreds of costume designs outfit farmers, British and German military officers and grunts, French peasant farmers and even a group of nursing nuns, all in period-evocative detail. A swath of white spreads across the entire length of the stage, resembling a torn piece of paper, on which is projected in non-stop animation hand drawings hinting at the locales and enhancing the action below, inspired by the sketchings of a British officer we meet early in the play.
Sound and light are of tremendous importance to the success of the show, with bombs exploding, machine gun fire, torrential rains, smoke-filled evenings and ominous poison gas attacks depicted. Paule Constable as lighting designer and Christopher Shutt’s sound design, demonstrate collaboration at its best. Adrian Sutton has provided a motion-picture like musical score interspersed with traditional sounding songs composed by British folk artist John Tams and sung by members of the cast, frequently led by a fine-voiced John Milosich cast a wandering song man.
While most of the cast is required to play multiple parts, there are several stand out roles, most notably at the performance on Tuesday evening, January 28, Michael Wyatt Cox as the devoted Albert, who believably grows from naïve but earnest farm boy who is later ridiculed by his fellow privates for attachment to his horse into a braver fighter who is relied upon by other soldiers for an innate intelligence. His mother and chief ally at home is played by with a warmth and understanding by Maria Elena Ramirez. Gene Gillette plays the father, Ted, as a lost, but well-meaning man of the earth who allows his weaknesses and selfishness to control him, particularly when he betrays his son by selling Joey.
Other human support is provided by Andrew May as Captain Frederich Muller who takes Joey and Topthorn under his wing when they are captured by the German Army. He is quite good at conveying the impact of war and cruelty on an essentially good man, especially as he later establishes a temporary “family” with a mother-daughter pair of French refugees. Ka-ling Cheung is quite good as the young daughter, particularly in expressing the young girl’s confusion over and adjustment to the vagaries of war.
The real stars are the operators of the horses, and the final bow at curtain call is reserved for the three operators each of Joey and Topthorne, who due to the demands of the parts are switched around nightly. On Tuesday, Danny Yoerges, Patrick Osteen and Dayna Tietzen exquisitely maneuvered Joey, while Jon Hoche, Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley captured the grace and majesty of the mighty but doomed Topthorne. And Hoche also shined as the operator of the irreverent goose who snipped, cawed and got underfoot in a most endearing manner.
Director Sheibani has recreated the many awe-inspiring moments with care and conviction, the first such effect being Joey’s stunning change from the cute foal into the masterful horse, a moment that remains genuinely surprising and impressive. The puppeeters work their magic in the scene where Joey and Topthorne initially meet and size each other out, with grunts, snorts, keening and eventually a trust, which carries them forward into battle. The cavalry charge that closes the first act captures the appropriate intensity of potentially a doomed run, with riders astride the two gallant animals.
It’s easy to see why this production took home the Tony Award for Best Play in 2011. While some may feel that its plot is at times emotionally manipulative and doesn’t develop its human characters very deeply, it’s the horses and the special effects we’ve come to see—and we’re certainly not disappointed.
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