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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 15, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 7
War Horse redefines both theater and puppetry
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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War Horse redefines both theater and puppetry

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

WAR HORSE
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
Through February 24


War Horse is the smash play that has redefined the art of storytelling on stage. Using state-of-the-art puppetry the play brings to life the story of one boy's search for the horse that he loves, and how they both grow up separately on different fields of war. With the magic of cables, a wooden framework, and the genius talent of three men manipulating the animal, horses come to life and take center stage of this wonderful, tragic, and above all incredible tale of war, love, and dedication.

Starting on a farm in Devon, Ireland, at the onset of World War I, Albert Narracott is a young boy who is assigned by his father to take care of the new foal that he has purchased. Albert works with Joey until the horse becomes an incredible thoroughbred. But then, without a word to his son, Albert's father sells Joey to the British cavalry. Not wanting to be separated from his beloved horse, Albert lies about his age and enlists, being sent to the battlefields of Europe. The setting takes the audience from a farm in Ireland, across the English Channel, through the ravaged countryside of France, and into the barbed-wire tangles of the 'no-man's land' between the Allies and the German-led forces.

There are several issues that are brought up in this excellent show, one in particular the issue of cowardice. Is it cowardly to take care of your family while others go off to fight a war? Is it cowardly to try to avoid fighting if you know your side is losing? Does which side you are on really matter when most of your companions are dead? The message is clear: when war is concerned, there are no winners. The play shows these horrors of war in a very unique way - through the eyes of the horse. While human interactions are going on around him, it is Joey's story that we are watching, and while the horse doesn't speak a single word (of course, of course), we understand its thoughts, feelings, and actions as clearly as a Shakespearean soliloquy.

While the play definitely deals with all-too-real faults of human ideology, without a doubt the main star of this show is Joey. Created by Handspring Puppet Company, which starting working with War Horse in 2005, Joey is made up of a cane frame (previously soaked, bent, and stained for flexibility) that weighs up to 120 pounds, and a series of cables, gears, and handbrakes to bring the animal to life. Three men (Derek Stratton, Christopher Mai, and Rob Laqui) control the framework making the puppet a living, breathing creature that (in comparison) makes Lion King seem like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Through the creative magic of theater, the horses come alive on the stage. The horses never 100% shed their puppet identity and instead become more like a well-oiled Animatronic. For all intents and appearances these animals are real - they breathe, they move, their eyes and tails twitch, and we, the audience, become endeared at once.

The scenery is simple, bare, and as basic as a set for Our Town. The feel of the countryside or the visuals of a sky lit up with bombs and gunfire are all done with simple moving illustrations. Hanging across the stage like a banner is what appears to be a blank sheet of sketching paper. Through the play the scenery changes by simple drawings and projections, giving a very intimate feel without having major special effects shaking the house. The audience never once feels lost, but the eye wanders from the action on the stage to the illustrations that hang above it. It definitely helps to engage the audience during some of the slower scenes, but these are minimal in progressing the story. These scenes are also broken up with loud explosions and flashing lights, which may disturb young children.

War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, and he is allegedly reported to have thought 'they must be mad' when approached to turn his child's book into a stage play. But after a (still continuing) run in London's West End, the play moved to Broadway on March 15, 2011. Before War Horse closed in January 2013, it ran for more than 700 performances, and was nominated for [and won] five Tony Awards including Best Play of 2011. Steven Spielberg's film, also based on Morpurgo's novel, was released in 2011 and was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

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