Since the last stage production I’d seen was The Phantom of The Opera close to 16 years ago, it could be said that I’ve missed quite a bit of theatrical magic. When I saw that War Horse was coming to the Curran Theater for a limited run, the deal was already sealed. With numerous awards and Tonys won on and off-Broadway for direction, set design, lighting, sound, and acting, I couldn’t wait for the curtain to rise on this World War I epic, directed by Bijan Sheibani.
War Horse starts shortly before the onset of World War I, in Devon, England. 16-year-old Albert Naracott, a young farm boy who has cared deeply for his beloved horse, Joey, is suddenly separated from the mighty steed when Albert’s father sells Joey to the Army to be used as a cavalry horse in the war. Heartbroken and without a second thought, Albert sneaks away and joins the Army himself, lying about his age in order to enlist, in the hopes that he will someday be reunited with Joey. On his journey, Albert witnesses the realities and horrors of one of the bloodiest wars in human history, as well as discovering that Joey may well still be alive; a German officer has taken a liking to Joey and removed him from combat duty, in favor of manual labor, hoping to keep Joey for himself.
The first thing you’ll notice about the stage adaption of War Horse is its bare-bones set design, although it still manages to reach a level of visual engagement unlike any I have seen before. The “props” are drop dead simple; most things being held by cast extras and actors for the required scene, such as a fence or a horse pen. The huge cutout backdrop is what really excels, however, as it acts as an almost nondescript projection display, depicting hand drawn art, weather effects, dates, and scene locations. It is not distracting at all and really ties the live action and music together brilliantly. Speaking of music, the score is fantastic, albeit pre-recorded, hence, there is no live orchestra. I consider this the production’s only shortfall. I love a live orchestra, and the depth it lends to a traditional acoustic theater; an experience second to none. That said, however, the sound system at the Curran dutifully produced the original score quite exceptionally, and not an ounce of drama was lost in the process.
Let’s talk horses already; the very animals that this version of War Horse is becoming known for. In a word: magnificent! Designed and built by the geniuses at the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa, Joey and the other mighty steeds instantly spring to life in an almost eerily magical, awe-inspiring moment that frankly took my breath away. Don’t let the company’s name that built these fool you, the creatures in War Horse are not, in any way, your average, run-of-the-mill Bert & Ernie dolls. What the Handspring Puppet Company has achieved in the design and production of these marvels is stunning, bound to engage and grab hold of your attention from start to finish. The fact that these horses are, in reality, controlled by well-oiled teams of “actors” is an achievement in and of itself. Yes, there are visible “handlers” controlling the movements of the horses, however you won’t hardly notice them after about 10 minutes, as the pure skill and emotion given to these semi-mechanical equines is nothing short of masterful. As we follow the evolution of Joey from a simple plow horse on the fields of Devon to a muscular combat mount on the bloody fields of war-torn Europe, we become increasingly attached, not to mention emotionally invested in these animals; we care about them, and what ultimately becomes of them. One vivid scene has the spirited Joey charging an oncoming Mk IV battle tank, both an act of defiance and rage; an overwhelming scene that puts the entire story into perspective and absolutely fires home the dire reality of War Horse’s subtle narrative. Part human, part horse…a jaw-dropping exoskeleton of sorts is what War Horse exhibits in these “puppets”, both a visual feast for the eyes and an endearing tale of loyalty that will inevitably tug at your heart-strings.
With excellent performances and wonderous, yet simplistic set design, War Horse is the stuff of stage-craft brilliance. See War Horse for its imagery, its magic, and its unyielding devotion to the idea of love and honor, courage and devotion. War Horse is simply put: magnificent.
5 out of 5