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Chicago by John Olson

War Horse
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of The Book of Mormon

A Separate Peace
Joey and Company
When film producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall saw the National Theatre's War Horse in 2009, the story goes that they instantly saw the potential for a film version and pitched it to Steven Spielberg, who fast-tracked it into production. For me, and I suspect for others who were introduced to this story through the Spielberg film, it wasn't as easy to do that visualization in reverse. The film and play are both based on Michael Morpurgo's novel of a remarkable horse's experience in World War I. The movie is very traditionally shot: romantic, but realistic in that it uses live action, trained animals and was filmed on location. Even having seen excerpts and stills from the Broadway production, it was hard for me to picture how huge galloping horses and bloody battle scenes could be communicated on stage. Having now seen the touring production of this stage adaptation by Nick Stafford, with the original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris recreated by Bijan Sheibani, I now understand why it was beyond my layman's ability to picture the story on stage. War Horse looks nothing like anything I've ever seen. On the basis of its innovations alone, it's a must for any serious practitioner or lover of theater. Elliott and Morris, working with the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, have created a whole new level of theatricality that's somewhere between minimalist design and realism.

The production element that has most facilitated this is Handspring's puppetry, using giant-sized horse puppets operated by three men inside them: one in the front controlling head and ears, one in the middle controlling breathing (via a harness connecting the puppeteer's spine to the spine of the puppet), and a third operating the tail and hind legs. But amazing as is this technology, allowing fluid and nuanced movements by the horses (and other animals), credit is due to the creativity of the stage directors, puppetry and movement directors (Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Toby Sedgwick, Matthew Acheson and Adrienne Kapstein) along with some 18 puppeteers to imagine the movements of the creatures. Their collaboration creates true animal characters—with individual personality traits and emotions—in more realistic a manner than I would have thought possible.

Elliott and Morris's stagecraft doesn't end with the puppetry, though. The production design includes projections, lighting and costume design that bring the audience into scenes of early 20th century England and France that are alternately pastoral and brutal, with virtually no sets. Rae Smith, who created the sets and earth-toned costumes, also designed drawings of the story's locations that are projected above the stage on a parchment-like banner, suggesting the drawings of the British Army officer who buys the horse, Joey, and first brings him into battle. It gives the drama a storybook feeling that is in sync with Morpurgo's teen lit novel and signals that we the audience must use our imaginations (and now, perhaps, memories of the film) to fully see the time and places of the tale. Battle scenes are communicated through the directors' and movement director Sedgwick's smart blocking and the brilliant lighting design by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn. Joey's climactic battle scene in No-Man's Land near the end of the war is especially thrillingly staged and every bit as moving as the film's depiction of it. The directors take some of the action into the aisles and on platforms built over the orchestra pit to give something of an immersive experience—difficult to do in a 2,200 seat house like the Cadillac Palace. Finally, there's a majestic recorded musical underscoring by Adrian Sutton that gives the play the feeling of a big movie blockbuster.

There are actors in the show, of course, though they're really secondary to the stagecraft. This is no reflection on the fine cast. It's just that Nick Stafford's script focuses more on the animals, plot and situation rather than deep character development of the humans. The text is also lighter on the pathos of the humans than is the film's screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. The film places more emphasis on the financial plight of Joey's human family, the Narracotts. It also deals with Ted Narracott's haunting memories of the Boer War, and the stories of the Germans and French caught up in WWI. On stage, it's Joey who's the remarkable one, and the actors have less opportunity to shine. That said, Todd Cerveris is an appealing Ted, playing him as a likable middle-aged rapscallion with a penchant for drinking and gambling, rather than the tragic figure his character is shown to be in the film. Ted's wife Rose is played warmly yet spunkily by Angela Reed, and Andrew Veenstra is suitably earnest and idealistic as their son Albert. Andrew May is also a standout as the kind German Captain Muller who protects Joey for a time.

In the Cadillac Palace, the sound is a bit of problem, with the dialogue frequently hard to understand given the heavy British, German and French accents of the characters. It was enough of a problem at the performance I attended, that I think I might have had trouble following the plot if I hadn't been familiar with it from seeing the film first, and in fact I did miss some of the story points that differed from the screenplay.

Even so, enough of Morpurgo's moving story comes through to make this production more than a case history of stage wizardry. While a reference to horses in the military was a joke in the recent presidential election debates, War Horse honors the animals who served back when their roles were critical and involved sacrifice and suffering as much it did for the human soldiers and civilians caught up in battle as well. It's a landmark production and a must see. I hope it tours for a long, long time.

War Horse will play the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago through January 5, 2013. Ticket information is available at www.broadwayinchicago.com, 800-775-2000 and at all Broadway in Chicago box offices and Ticketmaster outlets. For more information on the tour, visit warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour.


Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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-- John Olson



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