At its core, “War Horse” is a simple story about a boy and his horse.
But it isn’t the story – reminiscent of so many animals-and-the-kids- who-love-them tales – that makes “War Horse” such a marvelous evening of theater. It’s the sets and the staging. It’s the performances.
And it’s most certainly the horses.
The puppetry on stage in “War Horse” is simply so good, so unlike much of what we think of as puppetry, that it makes a rather shopworn plot a lot shinier. The horses, created by the Handspring Puppet Co. of South Africa, are sculptures crafted of tubing, netting, fabric and hinges. But the puppeteers behind these creatures are able to fill them with so much life that it’s easy to forget they’re not real. They prick up their ears in response to familiar sounds. They cock their heads in a quizzical manner. They gallop across the stage with riders on their backs.
“War Horse,” which opened at the INB Performing Arts Center on Tuesday as part of the Best of Broadway series, opens in Devon, England, on the eve of World War I. A poor farmer, Ted (Todd Cerveris), in a pique of sibling rivalry, outbids his more successful brother Arthur (Chad Jennings) for a young horse, a hunter-draught cross probably ill-suited for life as workhorse.
That doesn’t stop the man’s son, Albert (Alex Morf), from naming the horse Joey and taking him under wing. Together the two gallop across the Devon countryside and form a close bond.
Those bonds are tested, of course, by his father’s drunken foolishness and greed. When Ted is offered a lot of money, he sells the horse to the British Army, despite his promise to Albert that the boy could keep his beloved Joey.
It’s no surprise that Albert, at age 16, runs away to find his horse. He lies about his age and joins the Army, only to find himself in the hell that is World War I France.
The second act finds Joey and Albert separately experiencing all the horrors of war. Joey and another British horse, Topthorn, have been captured by the Germans, and are befriended by a war-weary cavalry captain, Friedrich Muller (Andrew May), and a French woman and her daughter.
Albert, meanwhile, is ever hopeful he’ll find Joey, despite the fact that the front lines, with all the machine-gun fire and barbed wire, have proven disastrous for the cavalry’s horses.
It’s in the battle scenes that the style of “War Horse” shines. The sets are sparse, allowing the horses to really stand out. A video screen – shaped like a torn piece of paper – shows drawings that help fill out the scene playing out below. Colors are muted and there’s some really interesting choreography involved in making the war machines – ships and tanks – move under human power. Throughout the play, a lone singer (vocalist Jason Laughlin) steps onto the stage to sing, helping to set the stage for the action before us. It all makes for an effective and powerful experience.
Across the board the performances are excellent. May, as Muller, conveys his sadness and desperation quite well. And while Morf clearly isn’t 16 years old, he brings a youthful exuberance and deep emotion to his performance.
It’s not all bloodshed and war. “War Horse” is sprinkled with little bits of humor – funny lines, amusing gestures from the horses and a scene-stealing goose. Still, be advised to take a tissue. While “War Horse” the play is far less sentimental than “War Horse” the movie, and the ending should surprise no one, the beauty of the horses and the power of the message are sure to draw a tear or two.