Tuesday evening, the Tony Award-winning play "War Horse" opened at Milwaukee's Marcus Center to a nearly sold-out audience. This book-turned-play tells the story of Albert who forms a strong bond with his horse, Joey, after bringing him up from a foal and overcoming the odds and his father's greed by training him to be a work horse against his wilder nature. However, an unfortunate turn of events takes Joey from Albert in the recruits for both young men and horses during the war.
While this may seem like serious material, "War Horse" is surprisingly humorous from the start and in later moments. The friendships established both between Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox) and Joey and Albert and his army friend David Taylor (Andy Truschinski), come with incredible chemistry and comedic relief from some more serious moments. Since the horse actually consists of three actors controlling a life-size horse puppet, it may seem strange that one can feel the chemistry between an actor and three men controlling a horse puppet, but the realism in portraying Joey and the other horses is so incredible that you can't help but see past the actors beneath the puppet and only see the personality coming through such subtleties as a swish of the tail, jerk of the head, or twitch of the ear. Milwaukee native Andy Truschinski stated in a recent interview,
The one thing we get a lot is 'I can't believe that I thought this horse was real!' We hear that a lot and that just tells you how amazing these people are under the horse.... The puppeteers' puppet work is amazing with these horses. It's pretty unbelievable.
It's true when Truschinski says that the actors bring the horses to life, as two horse puppets are able to captivate and keep a scene moving without any other actors on stage, or as the interaction between Albert and foal Joey bring laughs without any dialogue.
The tender, humorous moments between Joey and Albert constitute a good portion of the beginning of the play, but it is also a very intense production both in the plot and setting. Because of this, "War Horse" isn't for everybody as both high-intensity battle scenes, gunshots, and other alarming scenes make even the more prepared audience members jump in their seats. The audio shock from gunshots, battle scenes, or even old-fashioned flash photography may be due in part to so many quieter moments when actors would whisper to Joey. While it built the intimacy and tenderness shown towards Joey, it was also difficult to hear at times. So those who have hearing difficulties, sensitivity to unexpected sounds, or are uninterested in war stories or horses may not find this production as enticing as others, but there is much more to the stories than one might find on the surface.
"War Horse" is not just about a boy and his horse and the connection they share. There are many other underlying themes that audiences can appreciate if they don't find the animal or war aspects of the plot appealing. Such underlying themes include commitment, the impact of warfare, bravery, and friendship among others. But if even these don't strike your interest, the theatrical side of "War Horse" is fascinating in itself. There are very unique tactics used to make the story come to life, from the life-size three-man horse puppets to a large screen overhead that looks like a simple torn page segment but acts as set piece that transports both Albert and Joey as they travel from the countryside to the battlefield. As Truschinski put it,
This is an epic event that you've never seen before. You're going to come to a show and magic will literally happen in front of your eyes because you're going to believe that these horses are real, you're going to believe that these friendship are real, and I know that walking away you're going to be elated and surprised that you've seen something that you've never seen before.
"War Horse" continues now through Sunday, Jan. 12 at The Marcus Center and tickets are available online or by calling (414)273-7206. For more information about the show, please visit http://www.warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour.