Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 14, 2011
War Horse Based on the novel by Michael Porpurgo. Adapted by Nick Stafford. In association with Handspring Puppet Company. Directed by Marianne Eliott and Tom Morris. Sets, costumes & drawings by Rae Smith. Puppet design, fabiration and direction by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company. Lighting by Paule Constable. Director of movement & horse sequences Toby Sedgwick. Animation & projection design by 59 Productions. Music by Adrian Sutton. Songmaker John Tams. Sound by Christopher Shutt. Cast in alphabetical order: Stephen James Anthony, Zach Appelman, Alyssa Bresnahan, Richard Crawford, Sanjit De Silva, Matt Doyle, Austin Durant, Joby Earle, Joel Reuben Ganz, Ariel Heller, Peter Hermann, Alex Hoeffler, Brian Lee Huynh, Jeslyn Kelly, Ian Lassiter, Tom Lee, Jonathan Christopher MacMillan, Jonathan David Martin, Boris McGiver, Seth Numrich, Prentice Onayemi, Bhavesh Patel, David Pegram, Kate Pfaffl, Stephen Plunkett, Leenya Rideout, Liam Robinson, Jude Sandy, Hannah Sloat, T. Ryder Smith, Zach Villa, Elliot Villar, Cat Walleck, Enrico D. Wey, Madeleine Rose Yen.
The animal in question is Joey, a hunter colt that's the offspring of a thoroughbred and a draft horse, and is purchased at auction by a just-scraping-by English man named Ted Narracott. His 12-year-old son, Albert, falls in love with Joey and devotes his life to training him and protecting him from harm (much of which Ted inflicts, intentionally or otherwise), until World War I ignites. Joey is sent to France to carry an English officer into battle against the Germans, with Albert, technically too young to enlist, following soon behind, determined to bring the horse back to his Devon home and rebuild the crumbling Narracott family.
Yet as rendered here, Joey is no anonymous creature, and his presence onstage transcends that of a mere prop. When you first see him, as a foal in the wilderness, he's curious but timid, scared of but attracted to the world he's meeting. Later, he erupts in anger and fear as he faces resistance first from Ted and then from a fiery-tempered black horse named Topthorn. As a mount, Joey commits acts of astonishing athleticism and heroic bravery, and suffers injuries of crippling severity. Look closely and you'll see Joey breathe; squint and you may swear tears — of joy or sadness, individually or simultaneously — are welling up in his eyes.
These creations, which bond instantly and irrevocably with your spirit, are undoubtedly a major part of the reason War Horse has been a sell-out hit in London since opening there in 2009, and why that success will likely (and deservedly) be repeated in New York. As for the rest of the show, which Nick Stafford has adapted from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young-adult novel and is co-directed here by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, it does not quite scale the heights the puppets do. The story is a hair thin, its people characters a shade melodramatic in light of the animals’ naturalism. But that’s just nitpicking. The show still stands hands taller than most of this Broadway season’s other offerings to date, proving that glittering triumphs can result from the finely tuned symbiosis of professionalism and unbridled imagination.
Rae Smith's scenic design, for example, is largely sparse, the most significant set pieces (the ruins of war, bare sticks representing trees, and so on) generally placed around the periphery of the action, where you're barely sure you're actually seeing them. Smith also did the costumes, which are likewise standard stuff, in the lower-class garb and the crisp military uniforms alike. The lights, by Paule Constable, trade heavily in spotlights and shadows, drawing your eye with expert precision wherever it needs to be, and rarely letting anything else enter the frame. Yet in no case do you feel you’re missing out on either spectacle or information. The same is true of Adrian Sutton's music, John Tams's songs, and 59 Productions's ever-evolving pencil-sketch projections: All summon the makeshift hope and haunting complexities of the era, with a folk twist that always feels organic rather tacked-on.
The acting is no less accomplished. Seth Numrich captures both the youthful ardor and iron-willed determination of Albert, growing up convincingly across a sprawling six-year span without ever letting Albert’s singular goal overwhelm his portrayal. Boris McGiver is harrowing as Albert’s frustrated deadbeat father; Alyssa Bresnahan suffocating but warmly maternal as his mother; T. Ryder Smith coolly dastardly as his enabling uncle; and Matt Doyle an excellent embodiment of the pampered boy catapulted into adulthood by war’s necessities. Other standouts include Stephen Plunkett as a kindly English lieutenant and Peter Hermann as a sympathetic German soldier whose path unwittingly crosses with Joey's.
But there's no escaping the fact that Joey is the star. He's manipulated throughout by three actors, who are part of a group that rotates between Joey, Topthorn, and several other horses, so you won't necessarily see the ones I did. My group, however, consisting of Jeslyn Kelly, Jonathan David Martin, and Prentice Onayemi, succeeded brilliantly at what would seem to be an insurmountable task: not just bringing a horse puppet to vivid life (which might be fairly easy in the grand scheme of things), but giving him a questing and unquestionable soul.
Whether Joey was rearing up in rage, galloping in wild delight, plowing beneath the strain of a harness no one is sure he can bear, or... well, any of the other marvelous things he does during his astounding journey, he never seemed less real than any living person onstage — or in the world the rest of us occupy. Joey is proof, in a season and a community in which it is urgently needed, that theatre at its simplest can still incite, inspire, and enliven as no other art form can. Too often, it chooses not to. But this play bucks that trend to revitalize and challenge a theatre culture that is still capable of being greater than it usually aspires to be. Of the myriad intoxicating spells War Horse spins, perhaps none is more masterful — or important — than this one.