War Horse

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street
production web site:  http://www.lct.org/showMain.htm?id=199

April 14, 2011 — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 4, 2011

Joey the War Horse with his guiding puppeteers. Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

War Horse, currently running at Lincoln Center‘s Vivian Beaumont, holds few surprises for humans familiar with fairy tales and young adult novels.  Father and son dynamics play out, a family in need does what it must, two adult brothers compete with lurking filial energy based on who did and did not fight in the Boer War, and a young boy and later a young girl have tender feelings for a horse.  Feelings for animals transcend human politics —  My Friend Flicka and The Tin Drum and Johnny Got His Gun. For my money, the reasons to attend this production, as the Tony Award Committee has already suggested with a non competitive award for the puppetry to Handspring Puppet Company and a number of nominations for competitive awards, is the stunning stage magic involving everything other than the human beings: puppets (and their handlers), set and costume and drawing design (Rae Smith), projection design (59 Productions),  lighting design (Paule Constable), and surging cinematic sound design (Christopher Shutt on sound and Adrian Sutton on music).  Some of the images haunt me to this moment, and all these parties had a hand in creating them.

Our hero horse Joey (puppetry by shifting three-person teams of puppeteers) is born as a “hunter” — half thoroughbred and half draft horse — who catches the eye of two brothers at a country fair in Devon in 1912.  Arthur (T. Ryder Smith) is a gentleman with a spoiled son Billy (Matt Doyle); one is a poor farmer Ted (Boris McGiver) with a stalwart son Albert (Seth Numrich).  Ted bids on and wins the horse in an auction, spending the farm mortgage in the process.  Mother Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan) supports the colt coming into the barnyard, but only for as long as it takes for him to grow into an adult horse that can be sold to make back the original purchase price.  Son Albert grooms and loves and coddles and teaches the horse, forging a bond of love and humor.  When war comes with the “guns of August” 1914, father Ted again shows himself to be absolutely self-centered and sells Joey to Army personnel who are offering decent prices for horses needed in the Calvary forces on the ground in Europe.  In horror at this action by his father and filled with conviction that he can find his soul mate horse, Albert runs away and joins the Army — more to find Joey than to serve his country.  Joey serves as a symbol throughout the war — British officers act more reasonably when around him (the real gentlemen treat the horse well, the true cads are abusive), a German soldier while AWOL and a French farm girl care for Joey and another horse on a farm in France, and Joey finally makes his way back to his young man.  Joey is the symbol of all that is good in the world.

The thrill in this theatre is in the journey and how it is shown in imagery and effects, not in depth of story. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted using a townsfolk chorus and on stage instrumentals and stereotypes that still draw a tear and puppets that move you the most.  Full-sized puppet constructions of slats and scrim evoking horses that are ridden, and military tanks that roll, and my favorite supporting character — a barnyard goose that rolls and flaps its wings and honks.  Stage pictures in light, shadows, projected drawings, pivoting stage action, even choices for stage surface treatment are enchanting and mesmerizing.  A more horrific presentation of war in the trenches, in the barbed wire, in the explosions and cacophony and eerie silences of No Man’s Land may never have been created.  This is not a theatre of words but a theatre of images and sounds.  And golly, what a theatre.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 6, 2011)

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