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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

War Horse
The Bushnell

Also see Fred's review of The Consultant


Cast
War Horse, celebrated in Mortensen Hall at Hartford's Bushnell through February 2nd, is visually thrilling. The steeds, created by Handspring Puppet Company's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, are emotive gems; seeing them, becoming transfixed, guarantees credibility. Drawn from Michael Morpurgo's novel, Nick Stafford's adaptation is predictable, to be sure. The overall spectacle, combined with the story's feeling, contribute to an affecting, sometimes ecstatic evening of theater.

The original production was directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris; Bijan Sheibani is at the helm for the American touring version. It all begins in August, 1912, as World War I approaches. Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox) grows up with his beloved horse, Joey. Ted (Gene Gillette), his farming father worried about finances, has purchased Joey at an auction. Joey (with red hues) listens to Albert—bonding is instant and forever. The boy's mother, Rose (Maria Elena Ramirez), is there to mediate between males.

Albert trains Joey and the horse is recruited for military duty. Eventually, Albert leaves home and finds his way to France in an effort to locate the animal. England battles Germany. While not new, the recognizable plot and theme prove pivotal. German Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May) takes a liking to Joey. Joey and another regal horse named Topthorn become friends—good ones who care for one another.

Meanwhile, the war continues. Adrian Sutton's music reverberates, Christopher Shutt delivers arresting sounds, and lighting, developed by Paule Constable, is sometimes frighteningly bright. Yes, all of this becomes a bit much upon occasion. Rae Smith, responsible also for costumes and sets, provides drawings, projected above the proceedings. Thus, the points of the story are connected.

Spiff Wiegand on accordion and vocals furnished by John Milosich are educational, important and lovely. This helps with narrative flow. Every so often, a funny goose appears, as do some birds—all to the better. Ultimately, however (remember this is a time of epic conflict), barbed wire is situated downstage. No need to reveal the final moments of the production.

As the episodes within War Horse unfold, little is surprising. This production succeeds in handsome, compassionate fashion due to Joey, Topthorn and the profound dexterity of those puppeteers who operate the horses. At times, there are a few more wondrous horses on stage, too.

Such is the level of expertise that the theatergoer is completely taken—mesmerized. On opening night at the Bushnell, Danny Yoerges, Patrick Osteen, and Dayna Tietzen functioned magnificently as a team for the fully grown Joey. John Hoche, Brian Robert Burns, and Gregory Manley were equally deft in animating Topthorn. Other individuals were aboard for Joey (as a foal) and other horses.

The horses take on human qualities. One sees, at the very beginning, that the large puppets have been constructed and that humans are behind and beneath the creations. As the show progresses, the literal is completely irrelevant. It is impossible not to regard the horses as fully breathing, responsive, warm, suffering "beings." And that is most telling. True enough, war is hell and losses are resultant. Even the "boy loves horse" motif becomes secondary. The majesty of this show and its irresistible pull emanate from Joey and Topthorn. Hats off, here, to those inspiring artists who facilitate the animals.

War Horse continues at the Bushnell in Hartford through February 2nd. For tickets visit www.bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900. For more information on the tour, visit http://warhorseonstage.com.


Photos: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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