What a ride: Visually, War Horse is a stunner, but the story lacks emotionaldepth
War Horse, which runs through September 23 at the Winspear Opera House, is about as successful a recent play as you can find. It has had award-winning runs in both London and New York, both of which continue to this day. Steven Spielberg only enhanced its reputation when he made a film adaptation that was nominated for six Academy Awards. The stage and screen versions are based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo.
The basis for War Horse is actually quite simple: It's the story of a boy and his horse. Set in the years leading up to and during World War I, Albert Narracott (portrayed in the national tour by Andrew Veenstra) is an English teenager whose father, Ted (Todd Cerveris), is wholly irresponsible, and whose mother, Rose (Angela Reed), is a saint for putting up with him.
One of Ted's riskier moves, which actually brings some good to the family, is the acquisition of a hunter horse that costs more than the family can afford, a colt that Albert subsequently names Joey. Albert and Joey grow up and grow close together — until Ted does another foolish thing and sells Joey to the military at the outbreak of the war. The bulk of the play details the trials and tribulations of Joey throughout the war and Albert's quest to find his horse again.
Whether it's a flick of a tail, a hoof pawing at the ground or a snort, the actors within the horses fully commit to creating something that's as close to reality as you can get.
The undisputed main attraction of the stage adaptation of War Horse is its use of life-size puppets to portray Joey and other horses. The puppets emulate horses but contain a framework that allows you to see the puppeteers controlling them. Three people handle every horse, which sounds distracting — and initially is— but soon their manipulations become seamless with the other actors, to the point where the puppets almost become lifelike.
There are thrilling moments when the horses rear up, gallop and jump, but what truly makes them memorable is the way the puppeteers never — and I mean never — stop moving. Whether it's a flick of a tail, a hoof pawing at the ground or a snort, the actors within the horses fully commit to creating something that's as close to reality as you can get. The only downside is the noises the actors make, which sometimes sound more like human screams than horse whinnies. It briefly draws you out of the spell.
As if to underscore the importance of watching the horses, the set is exceedingly simple. A large banner, meant to look like a piece of paper torn out of a sketchbook, hangs all the way across the stage. Sometimes it displays the setting of a particular scene, such as a picture of the Narracott's house, enhanced by the addition of an actual door and window below the banner. Other times it becomes animated, helping to display forward motion that can only go so far on stage. It also shows abstract drawings during explosions and other violent events, meant to convey the chaos of war. The only issue with the banner is that your eyes are too focused on the action onstage to look up and appreciate the work illustrated there.
The story has the potential to be as compelling as its visual elements, but somehow it falls short. Just as in Spielberg's film version, Albert and Joey's connection is a bit undercooked. It's easy to tell how close Albert and Joey are, but it often seems as if Albert's tortured relationship with his father is of greater importance than the one between boy and horse. And once Joey goes off to war, Albert disappears for long stretches, making the play more about Joey's survival. By putting too much focus on Albert's family life, the play has oddly cut down on the emotion, not added to it.
Despite the story's shortcomings, the acting is top-notch. Veenstra, Cerveris and Reed form a family unit that is painfully believable. Brian Keane— who plays both Albert's uncle Arthur and Sergeant Thunder, a blustery, profane officer— steals more than a few scenes. The actors who portray Joey— at this performance, Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui— deserve enormous credit, as do the ones who bring the other horses to life. Every story needs a little comic relief, and Jon Hoche does a great job as a feisty goose on the Narracott farm. Scenes occasionally are underscored by a song man, who sings folk tunes to set the tone.
No matter its faults, War Horse is a must for anyone who loves to experience the magic of live theater. These puppets, made to mimic the actions of real horses, are nothing short of remarkable, as are those who engineered them and the actors who master them during the performance. Whether or not the story touches you deeply, you'll remember Joey and how he was brought to life onstage.