The story that tells the relationship of a boy and his dog is a bit played out at this point. One we haven’t seen much of is a boy and his horse. Sure Hollywood in recent years has given us ‘Seabiscuit’ and ‘Secretatiat,’ but has anyone ever brought a tale like this to Broadway while being set in the thick of World War I? The utter infeasibility of putting horses on stage would seem to immediately ax this curious concept from seeing the light of day. Not so in the hands of the play’s producer Andre Bishop and directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris who brought the production from the West End stage last year after being showered with Oliver Awards. Through the amazing construction of puppets, they have taken a once off-limits storyline and made it a compelling tale that lingers with Broadway audiences.
Our lead Albert Narracott (Seth Numrich) begins this story as little more than a nursemaid to his drunk father Ted (Boris McGiver). As a struggling farmer, Ted is in a lifelong competition with his successful brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith) and that blind drive causes him to bid wildly at auction on a young fowl to best his brother. Ted’s family doesn’t have the money to afford the young horse, and to add insult to injury he is a racing horse rather than a more practical plow horse that can work the fields to earn his keep. Albert is saddled with the responsibility of raising the horse so that one day the family might sell him to recover the large bounty Ted stupidly squandered on him. It doesn’t take long for Albert to grow attached to the young horse who he names Joey, and it becomes painfully evident that selling the horse just isn’t going to be in the cards.
I have to admit the puppetry of the young foal was extremely touch and go at the start of the play. Three handlers are out on stage with the horse moving its legs, shifting its head and giving life to the otherwise inanimate object. It was rather disruptive to the telling of the story having three extra members onstage unrelated to the story. Thankfully, Joey grows up rather quickly and the lifesized puppet had two men within the body of the horse that didn’t pull your attention away from the action and one handler up front positioning the head.
The horse puppets really are the highlight of this show. They are highly detailed in design, and there is a lot of attention paid to the intricacies of their movements. As the play builds, these inanimate husks of cane evolve into real creatures and the audience swiftly grows an emotional attachment to them. When Joey is forced to head off to war, leaving Albert behind due to his age, it is a touching moment and jumping ahead in the script when Albert enlists for the sole purpose of finding Joey, it seems entirely plausible.
The other highlight of this play was the set design or lack there of. It was extremely minimalist in nature reminiscent of 2004s ‘Dogville.’ There was a wrapper above the stage that resembled a torn piece of paper the lighting guys would sketch backdrop out on as well as mark the time and place. For extra horses and infantry men, the set designers would mount up single manned horses and dummies only to shroud them in the shadows. I was amazed they accomplished so much with the relatively sparseness surrounding them.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo that was adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, the story itself was solid as we watch Joey grow, witness the struggles unfold between Albert and his father and see Joey jarred from the English to the Germans as soldiers and horses collapse in death all around him. We feel the characters struggles and shoulder their pain as they trudge through this life that seems destined for them to fail. Admittedly there are times that the script drags as we foster the horses’ development and simulate the passing of time and distance, but thankfully it is more the exception rather than the rule.
Overall, War Horse was a highly enjoyable play. The puppetry was unlike anything I had ever seen. It fueled the story and injected emotion within the emotionless. Without them, this play wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling if even feasible at all. Steven Spielberg is bringing ‘War Horse’ to the silver screen this Christmas sans puppets and swapping the minimalist slant for pictures of the lush English countryside. I can’t imagine two more diametrically opposed versions of the same story. All I know is the one being hosted at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center is a touching story told in a highly unique way that will resonate with audience members long after they’ve left their seats.
Author: Mark Runyon