War is hell, but horse puppets are neat.
The stars of War Horse are, unquestionably, the puppets. But the 90-pound life-sized horse frames–made of cane and constructed over six months in South Africa at $100,000 each1–only dazzle because of the extraordinary motor and voice skills from the actors (three to a horse) who animate them.
One of the most impressive moments in the play, which opens Broadway in Richmond‘s latest season, occurs when the principal horse, Joey, leaps from foal to full-sized stallion in an instant, representing the friendship forged over several months between Joey and his caretaker, 16-year-old Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox).
It was Albert’s father, Ted (David Hurwitz), who purchased the horse for his son to raise on their English farm in 1914 (the farm goose comes this close to stealing the show). After Great Britain declares war on Germany and enters World War I, Ted sneakily sells the horse into the British cavalry for profit, dismaying Albert.
Joey and his new caretaker, Lieutenant James Nicholls (Brendan Murray), enter battle in France, while Albert follows behind after he enlists in the army to find Joey. The production excels at depicting horse-led battles with minimal stage props, evoking a suspense and carnage that’s more easily depicted on screen, as Steven Spielberg did in his 2011 film.
Both Spielberg’s film and the original 2007 London production of War Horse were inspired by the 1982 young adult novel of the same name. Written by Michael Morpurgo, the story underscores the inextricable bond of friendship between animal and humankind, even amid the ghastliness of war.
Although there’s suspense and well-placed moments of humor, the story leaves nothing for the mind to really linger on when the house lights are raised: there are no unpredictable plot turns, no unique insights or perspective on war’s physical or psychological horrors, no dynamic characters apart from the German captain, Friedrich Muller (Andrew May). Perhaps to its detriment, the play feels like a young adult novel acted out.
With that said, the production’s assets outweigh its foibles. War Horse is an entertaining story of friendship and love shared between horse and human and how that friendship and love motivates our actions.
War Horse is currently running at the Landmark Theater until November 3rd.
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photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg