At its core, multiple Tony-winner and critical darling War Horse rests upon an otherwise unremarkable premise: “Boy befriends horse; Horse gets taken away; Boy and horse struggle to reunite against all odds”. Now open at the Kennedy Center, this simple tale of enduring friendship takes flight thanks to groundbreaking puppetry, an atmospheric score, and spectacular visuals that rival big budget films in their depiction of the awesome horror of war.
The play opens on an idyllic farm in Devon, England, where a playful colt puppet gallops about the stage. Following a bidding war in a country auction, the horse comes into the possession of young Albert Narracott. Albert and the horse, which he names Joey, form an instant bond that provides the emotional bedrock for the winding narrative. Movement directors Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones and their dextrous puppeteers bring a bit of magic to the stage as they imbue an artificial construct with the spirit of a living, breathing horse. Credit also goes to likeable actor Andrew Veenstra, who invests Albert with a convincing emotional attachment to Handspring Puppet Company’s artfully designed latticework of leather and metal.
Soon Albert’s prideful father, played with an irascible edge by Todd Cerveris, sells Joey to the British cavalry. The newly commissioned “war horse” and his young master follow divergent paths through the horror and hidden humanity of World War I, charted by a jagged border extending above the stage. Projected pencil sketches showcase constantly shifting locales, lending a storybook feel to Joey and Albert’s progression through WWI’s various theaters.
Singing narrator John Milosich adds a further element of fable to the story with his exposition via evocative Irish and Northern English ballads. Whether accompanied by an accordion or singing a cappella, Milosich’s wistful melodies provide emotional punctuation to each chapter.
As Joey and Albert trudge through grisly battlefields, the audience is treated to a dazzling spectacle of war, courtesy of coordinated efforts by set designer Rae Smith, lighting designers Paule Constable and Karen Spahn, and projection designers 59 Productions.
“The Illusion of Joey”
Floodlights flash, barbed wire bristles across the stage, images of artillery shells burst all around, and even a massive tank lumbers across the stage, menacing Joey as he desperately tries to escape. A doomsday symphony led by music director Greg Pliska lends an ominous backdrop. The horrors of war erupt before the audience’s eyes in a visceral, yet graceful, ballet of destruction that must be seen to be believed.
The eye-popping visuals often overshadow the quality character work. Andrew May stands out as the affable Captain Friedrich Muller. A man torn between his duty to the Kaiser and his nagging humanity, Muller provides a humanizing face for the German army, even as his comrades launch fusillades at Albert and his new comrades in arms. Angela Reed brings a hard-nosed warmth to the role of Albert’s mother Rose. Reed struggles to hold the family together, agonizingly torn between her duty as a wife and her anger at her mercurial, alcoholic husband.
Closes November 11, 2012
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $175
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The show broaches the topic of misplaced sympathy through the English and German soldiers’ love for the horses. Men on both sides of the conflict work to protect and heal Joey and fellow cavalry mount Topthorn, even as they launch deadly barrages at their fellow man across scarred battlefields. A climactic encounter in no-man’s land exposes the fallacy of these misplaced priorities, allowing two warring factions to temporarily come together and acknowledge their shared humanity. It provides a welcome respite from destruction for the emotionally taxed audience.
Admittedly, the ending of the show is somewhat of a letdown. After the emotional rollercoaster of the preceding hours, the story wraps up all too quickly, as if a “5 minutes left” sign is flashing at the stage from above the orchestra pit. This might stem partially from the story’s origins as a children’s book, but after so many hardships and painful losses, it’s almost painful to have the moment of catharsis cut off so abruptly.
The simplified storytelling may preclude a totally satisfying emotional conclusion, but the astonishing visuals are more than worth the price of admission. War Horse wrings unexpected, real emotion from actors dancing with giant puppets, eliciting alternating gasps of joy and pained sighs from the rapt audience. It dresses the central action in an astounding visual spectacle that sets a high bar for any other production that would seek to tackle modern war onstage.
The Kennedy Center hosts the hottest show in town until November 11th, and you’d do well to get a ticket any way you can.
War Horse, Adapted by Nick Stafford, Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. Original Direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. US Tour Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Featuring Michael Stewart Allen, Danny Beiruti, Brooks Brantly, Laurabeth Breya, Brian Robert Burns, Jason Alan Carvell, Todd Cerveris, Michael Wyatt Cox, Grayson DeJesus, Catherine Gowl, Aaron Haskell, Mike Heslin, Jon Hoche, Mat Hostetler,Chad Jennings, Brian Keane, Nathan Koci, Jessica Krueger, Nick LaMedica, Rob Laqui, Megan Loomis, Jason Loughlin, Christopher Mai, Gregory Manley, Andrew May, John Milosich, Alex Morf, Patrick Osteen, Angela Reed, Jon Riddleberger, Lavita Shaurice, Derek Stratton, Andrew Veenstra, and Danny Yoerges. Produced by Bob Boyett, National Theatre of Great Britain, Ostar Productions, and Ken Gentry. Presented by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Ben Demers.
War Horse U.S. tour Trailer
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Trey Graham . City Paper
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
Derek Mong . BrightestYoungThings
Gwendolyn Purdom . Washingtonian
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
Peter Marks . Washington Post