Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Equine Uplift

A scene from War Horse (photo by Paul Kolnik)
War Horse

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
Adapted by Nick Stafford, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo
In association with Handspring Puppet Company
Starring Alyssa Besnahan, Matt Doyle, Boris McGiver, Seth Numrich, Kate Pfaffl, T. Ryder Smith

Previews began March 15, 2011; opened April 14; tickets on sale through Jan. 29, 2012
Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

A triumph of dazzling stagecraft, War Horse transforms Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel into a wondrous if creaky drama filled--or crammed--with uplift.

War Horse concerns teenage Albert Narracott who, on a small English farm, raises Joey to become the fastest horse in the valley and even, improbably, a plow horse. Soon, ringing area church bells signal the start of World War I. Although Albert is too young to go, his 19-year-old cousin Billy signs up, and when Albert’s drunken, broke father hears that cash is being offered for horses to serve in France, he sneaks Joey out and, before Albert can stop him, offers the beloved horse for his majesty’s service.

The rest of War Horse takes place on the battlefields of France, as Albert runs away from home and lies about his age so he can join the army to find Joey. The story plays out with wincingly bad dialogue and caricatured characters (particularly Albert’s doltish father), while the second act drags considerably due to its many repetitive battle scenes. Sadly, the original children’s story skeleton is too trifling to carry the burden of a brutish war saga.

Still, War Horse overcomes these flaws thanks to imaginative staging and the miraculous life-size puppets that are operated by an army of performers. That’s not to take anything away from the actors, all of whom inhabit their roles persuasively, and Kate Pfaffl, who sings haunting interludes as the rather pretentiously named Song Woman. But, along with Paule Constable’s stark lighting and Rae Smith’s authentic costumes, ingenious illustrations and sparsely effective sets, directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris get their supreme assist from Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and the Handspring Puppet Company’s brilliant-realized horses.

That the horses are not realistic is the point, since we’re not supposed to believe they are simply big, beautiful animals but that they have a humanity connecting them to the other characters, whether English, French or even German enemies: there’s a bloody unlikely (and heroic) German soldier that coaxes more sentimentality out of the reigning simplistic storytelling.

The wonderfully limber performers who play the horses are not only spectacular in their movements and sounds, but also elegant: when a horse is killed on the battlefield, the horsemen fall to the ground and slowly and gracefully roll out of their imposing costumes made of steel, leather and cables and soundlessly leave the stage.

Whatever its flaws, War Horse lives up to its reputation as a true theatrical dazzler, but also makes one apprehensive about Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film adaptation, which sounds like it may fall into the treacly traps that the stage version just barely avoids.

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