It goes without saying that the biggest draw and the greatest triumph of the National Theatre of Great Britain's opus is the Handspring Puppet Company's life-sized puppets which convince us to willingly suspend disbelief almost instantly. Despite the fact that each of the horses is manipulated by three human puppeteers, they virtually disappear once an emotional bond is established between the audience and the animal as a vital character in the play. In addition to performing a physical task in the body of the puppet, each puppeteer is assigned an emotional indicator component (ears, breath, and tail) to convey what the horse is thinking and feeling. Collaborating with the actors who play the villagers and soldiers, there is a current that passes between them, shifting from moment to moment in reaction to the drama playing out on stage.
Based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is a simple, timeless tale about farm boy Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) and his beloved horse Joey (Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger at this performance) who is conscripted to serve in the cavalry of the British Army when World War I breaks out. Too young to enlist, Albert entrusts Joey's well-being to Lieutenant James Nicholls (Jason Loughlin) who promises to bring the horse home safely within months. Of course, we know better; despite the stiff upper lip of the Brits, war never goes as easily as imagined. Albert gets word of Nicholls' death in battle and runs away to find Joey.
The action swings back and forth between Joey's trials and tribulations, Albert's experiences in the trenches, and the worries of the Narracott family on the home front. The visceral battle scenes deliver a blow to the gut, rendered with an authenticity that may be unprecedented in live theater. As explosions sound (design by Christopher Shutt) and flash brightly (Paule Constable and Karen Spahn, lighting design), soldiers' bodies fly or drop in place with indelible impact. Horses charge forward and rear up in defiance of the weaponry that is bent on their destruction, including enemy tanks that threaten to roll over everything in their path.
Rae Smith is responsible for sets, costumes and drawings that create the peaceful world of Devon, England in 1912 and take us through the darkness and devastation wrought by the war years from 1914 through 1918. A black backdrop is bisected by a horizontal swath of white that serves as a canvas for projected images of the village or the battlefield. The scenes change like Etch A Sketch drawings and keep us informed of time and place. A pair of roving troubadours (Instrumental Song Man Nathan Koci and Vocal Song Man John Milosich) help create the atmosphere with their offerings of traditional English folk music, and much of the action is underscored with Adrian Sutton's stirring music, de rigueur in a movie, but uncommon in a play. Like the puppeteers, you almost don't realize the music is there, but these details combine to make the whole significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
Veenstra is earnest in his portrayal of Albert and makes an authentic connection with Joey. Angela Reed is warm and sympathetic as his mother Rose, while Todd Cerveris succeeds in making father Ted the bumbling villain you can almost feel sorry for despite his selfishness. Brian Keane and Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert's uncle and cousin, respectively, do solid work. Alex Morf is Andrew's battle buddy and Andrew May becomes one of Joey's protectors on the German side of the barbed wire. Many in the company play multiple roles and it is a strong ensemble across the board. Unfortunately, it is too often difficult to discern dialogue due to accents and occasional sound clarity issues, but the eyes tell us most of what we need to know.
Overall, War Horse is an amazing theatrical event that is not to be missed. Go for the puppets and the technical wizardry, but savor all of the sights and sounds of the journeys of the boy and his horse and let their story into your heart. You will have that unique experience of sitting in the dark, sharing something magical with strangers, that only happens in live theater.
War Horse performances through October 21 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Tickets at the Box Office Monday-Friday, 10 am to 5 pm, or at Ticketmaster 800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com; more information at warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, Adapted by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company; U.S. Tour Directed by Bijan Sheibani; Sets, costumes & drawings, Rae Smith; Puppet design, fabrication & direction, Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company; Original lighting, Paule Constable; Additional lighting & adaptation, Karen Spahn; Director of movement & horse choreography, Toby Sedgwick; Animation & projection design, 59 Productions; Music, Adrian Sutton; Sound, Christopher Shutt; Music director, Greg Pliska; Production Stage Manager, Eric Insko; Fight director, Tom Schall
Cast (in alphabetical order): Michael Stewart Allen, Danny Beiruti, Brooks Brantly, Laurabeth Breya, Brian Robert Burns, Jason Alan Carvell, Todd Cerveris, Michael Wyatt Cox, Grayson DeJesus, Catherine Gowl, Aaron Haskell, Mike Heslin, Jon Hoche, Mat Hostetler, Chad Jennings, Brian Keane, Nathan Koci, Jessica Krueger, Nick LaMedica, Rob Laqui, Megan Loomis, Jason Loughlin, Christopher Mai, Gregory Manley, Andrew May, John Milosich, Alex Morf, Patrick Osteen, Angela Reed, Jon Riddleberger, Lavita Shaurice, Derek Stratton, Andrew Veenstra, Danny Yoerges