The National Theatre's War Horse opened at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre last week with great fanfare and anticipation. Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s much loved children’s book of the same name, the play immediately caught the attention of film director Steven Spielberg, who promptly made it into an Oscar contender this past award season. But it is the stage version alone that magically conjures up life-size horses out of bent cane, foam rubber, nylon and bits of leather and offers them up to the audience’s imaginations and hearts. Playing now through September 9th, War Horse will dazzle you with its stage wizardry even as it brings into bold relief the gut-wrenching horrors that humans and horses alike endured during the war that was supposed to end them all, World War I.
It’s not surprising that the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, South Africa won a special Tony for its work on the magnificent horse puppets that thoroughly enthrall the audiences in War Horse. (The show also won the Tony for best play in 2011.) The exoskeletal structures make no attempt to hide the fact that two actors are underneath manipulating their every move, but the crafting is so expert that you soon forget their presence. The two actors, along with a third who walks alongside, make the horses snort, flick their tails and actually seem to breathe. And when they begin to gallop about, the magic is complete.
Britain is on the cusp of World War I when we meet a skittish foal that is up for auction in the small farming community of Devon. Ted Narracot (Brian Keane), a poor farmer embittered by hard times and hooch has got the mortgage money in his pocket when, just to spite his brother (Todd Cerveris), he outbids him for the foal and wins the honor of explaining the frivolous purchase to his long-suffering wife (a wonderful Angela Reed). Waving her off with a scowl on his face he goes off to bed and she gives the horse to their young son Albert (Andrew Veenstra), who promptly falls in love with the four-legged creature. Veenstra’s tender portrayal is a joy to behold as he attempts to bond with the nervous foal. You forget that he’s a puppet and simply focus on the fact that both boy and horse are innocents in a world about to go mad.
Albert names the foal "Joey" and the two spend idyllic days riding The Farmland and moors, slowly growing up together -- that is, until the outbreak of the war. Promised a great adventure and the notion that they’d be back in no time Britain’s young men sign up in droves. When Arthur finds out that the army is paying top dollar for cavalry horses, he quickly sells Joey to Captain Charles Steward (Grayson DeJesus), not giving a second thought to his son.
Too young to enlist, a devastated Albert vows to find a way to bring Joey home. Thus Joey leaves on a journey that takes him into the barbed-wirEd Battlefields of France where he eventually serves both British and German forces and is, for a time, cared for by a French girl and her mother. The opportunity to see the war from both sides of the enemy lines provides a searing and poignant look into the universal suffering of the war where millions of young men (and horses) were maimed and scarred for life or died miserable, needless deaths.
Scenic designer Rae Smith gives us a stark black backdrop that works effectively in the later war scenes, but does nothing to communicate the green hills of England’s pre-war, bucolic countryside where the Narracott family lives. A contrast between the two would have served the story well.