Like me, you probably associate puppet shows with children’s entertainment, not sophisticated Broadway productions. So when I heard that a theatrical version of War Horse featuring horse puppets was coming to the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas on its first national tour, I didn’t know what to expect.
I mean, come on, horse puppets?!?
On my way in I was intrigued to overhear a man say, “I’ve seen this show four times, and I still forget those horses aren’t real.” After seeing the show, I know exactly what he means.
From the opening scenes, in which we are introduced to Joey as a gangly foal, I was captivated by the subtle movements the trio of puppet handlers imbued their character with. The stage was bare, yet we could plainly “see” that the horse was nibbling on grass. In this way, War Horse causes the audience to play along, to imagine missing stage elements and therefore participate in a way that a technically accurate CGI rendering never asks us to.
Instead of trying to fool the audience, War Horse invites us to join in with our own imagination. Even with its puppeteers in full view, we quickly forget that the animals aren’t quite real. The puppeteers so expertly capture and express a horse’s essence that the audience is transported in that magical way which draws us all to theater to begin with. That’s the poetry behind their puppetry. (It’s not only the horses. My favorite animal character was Zoey the goose.)
I think this is why several people I spoke to say that the stage play is better than the movie. The movie had real horses, and therefore lacked the poetic sense that the stage production offers. (While we’re on the topic of suspension of disbelief, I must confess that it was harder to buy Andrew Veenstra as a 16-year-old than it was to believe the puppet Joey was a real horse. Cox seemed to be in his 20’s.)
War Horse began as a young adult book by Michael Morpurgo, was turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg and then adapted to the stage by Nick Stafford. Storywise, the play is fairly straight forward: “boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy gets horse back.” The tale focuses on the bond between a boy named Albert Narracott and his horse, Joey. When Joey gets sent to the British Cavalry, the young man will do anything to get him back.
Animal lovers everywhere will easily identify with their relationship, and while I can relate to that, it was not the story, but the dreamy staging that kept my interest. It’s easy to see why War Horse swept the 2011 Tony Awards with Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting and Best Sound Design, among other awards.
What makes the story interesting is the back drop of World War I as seen through the eyes of a horse. Human-driven war stories inevitably cause us to root for one side over the other, to see one country as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. Having a horse as a main character shows us just how stupid war is and how much suffering occurs on both sides of any armed conflict.
I would have liked more character development with Tripthorn, Joey’s equine rival, but what the hey (or in this case, hay!) I have not read the book or seen the movie, but I suspect that one or both contain this missing plot element.
While War Horse is a musical play, it is not a typical Broadway song and dance production along the lines of Chicago or even In The Heights. There’s no chorus line of fillies kicking up their hooves in an equine can-can, no jazz hands or grandly choreographed dance numbers.
War Horse uses its score in the manner of a movie soundtrack. The music isn’t meant to overshadow the action, it’s there to heighten emotions. At times, a singer and accordion player appear on the sidelines. Even the folk songs this duo weaves into the narrative are more atmospheric than toe-tapping, which works perfectly for this production.
A screen above the actors adds a certain graphic novel flavor to the experience, as sketched drawings of landscapes with occasional captions such as, “Calais, France,” offer information without intruding on the action below. All these elements, combined with a cast clad in sepia tones, masterful lighting and that fantastic puppetry combine to make War Horse the most cinematic experience I’ve ever had outside a movie theater. I highly recommend it.
What:First national tour of WAR HORSE, a Tony-award winning musical
When: Through September 23, 2012
Where: 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Price: Tickets start at $30. Check availability and book online at the AT&T Performing Art Center official website.
Runtime: 160 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
NOTE: While tickets were provided for review purposes, the opinions expressed in this article are wholly my own.
Photo credits: All photos provided courtesy of the AT&T Performing Arts Center