Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Jan. 5
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Just in case you haven’t heard, “War Horse” is all about the horses. Mainly Joey, a gorgeous chestnut half-thoroughbred who’s incredibly expressive from each twitch of his ears to every flick of his tail, but also Topthorn, a magnificent black stallion with a haughtier temperament.
Created by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company, these amazing life-size puppets and their kin, including a snippy scene-stealing goose, are the reason enough to race to the Cadillac Palace Theatre see the touring version of this show, which originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain and is here for a mere three weeks. While Steven Spielberg’s recent eponymous film has garnered six Academy Award nominations and may gain wider acclaim, I don’t think it can match the wonder of watching these creatures of cane and fabric come to breathing, neighing, rearing-up-on-their-hind legs life, thanks to the talented puppeteers.
Joey’s story drives the play, which was adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel by Nick Stafford and first staged in the U.S. at Lincoln Center Theater in 2011. It’s a classic — or clichéd, depending on your perspective — tale of a boy and his horse, from their first meeting to a painful parting followed by misadventures for both and a final reunion. The basic appeal is sentimental, but the World War I setting adds some heft: We see the horror and horrendous waste of war through the pain of the horses’ plight.
The title also takes on a double meaning, as Joey goes from skittish foal to seasoned veteran, mastering tasks that mean his survival in more ways than we at first realize. The focus of sibling rivalry between tavern-regular Ted (Todd Cerveris) and hoity-toity Arthur (Brian Keane) Narracott, the horse is bought by the former using his mortgage money at a bidding-war auction in the Devon village where the action starts. Ted’s son Albert (Andrew Veenstra), our young hero (14 in 1912), falls in love with the intelligent animal and trains him, even coaxing the hunter to pull a plow so he won’t go to Arthur as the result of a misguided bet Ted makes when drunk. Meanwhile Albert’s long-suffering mum, Rose (Angela Reed), tries to keep the farm running and compensate for her husband’s failings.
This rural idyll gives way to hellish nightmare in 1914, and when the cavalry comes calling, Ted betrays his son and sells the horse. At 16, Albert is too young to enlist — unlike his ill-fated cousin Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox) — but as the war drags on, defying the Brits’ rosy predictions, and the boy learns that the officer who promised to take care of Joey can’t, he runs away.
Most of Act 2 takes place on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, as Albert is shunted among short-lived infantry divisions and makes a new mate named David Taylor (Alex Morf). Joey serves both sides, narrowly escaping death several times and ending up stuck on barbed wire in no man’s land, and we become acutely aware of the lunacy of using swordsmen on horseback to fight guns, bombs, and finally tanks.
Besides the puppets — and dazzling special effects with them like the way the foal becomes the adult Joey — the staging relies heavily on projections, which range from line drawings by set-and-costume designer Rae Smith to exploding bomb and building animations by 59 Productions. They all streak across what looks like a ragged piece of cloth mounted across a black background, a device that’s interesting but not entirely successful. Folksy singing led by the Song Man (John Milosich) highlights timeless themes, while blaring melodramatic music is meant to heighten the drama of the battle scenes – but typifies the production’s lack of subtlety at its worst.
The other drawback is that the human characters tend to be hard to understand (flawed sound system?) and one-dimensional (perhaps stemming from the children‘s book source). Even Albert, though traumatized by his experiences, doesn’t really show much development from age 14 to 20, formative years in any young man’s life. Arguably the most intriguing person is Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May), the horse-loving German soldier who has a profound change of heart, epitomizing the possibility of humanity among enemies. But, like so many others, he comes and goes from the narrative, and given the large ensemble, sometimes it’s hard to tell (at least from where I was sitting) who’s who and which side is which.
On the other hand, Joey makes his presence and feelings known every minute he’s on stage — and that’s almost every minute of “War Horse.” So, go see him. You’ll come away believing that he’s as real as can be. And that’s the magic of theater.