Love, war, life, death, and complex puppetry comprise the story and set of the five-time Tony Award winning play “War Horse,” which premiered at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts this week and runs through Sunday, Feb. 16.
“War Horse,” based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Strafford, is about a young foal named Joey, sold at an auction to an alcoholic farmer in what initially seems to be an impulsive purchase. His son, Albert, played by actor Andrew Long, develops a deep bond with the animal, the two becoming best of friends. Unfortunately, they have the bad luck of being from the very early 20th century; World War I erupts at the height of their friendship, with the start of the German army advancing across Europe.
Joey finds himself conscripted into the British army to become a Calvary horse behind Albert’s back; Albert, desperate to find his beloved friend, decides to enlist in the army as well, with both of them living through the horrors of war on the front lines in hopes that one day, human and horse might be reunited.
The cast gives an emotional, powerful performance as scenes of front-line combat, survival and early 1900’s British farm life unfold on stage, but the true focus of this production is in the horses — well, the puppets used to portray the horses. But these aren’t your garden variety, goofy looking children’s toys, nor are they two people wrapped up in one silly costume walking on their hands and feet on the inside.
Produced by The Handspring Puppet Company, these are life-sized, complex creations with wheels, wire, and cloth, manipulated by several handlers that control each piece of the animals for an extraordinarily realistic performance. The puppeteers have clearly studied and mastered the movements, mannerisms, and habits of real horses, for these moving works of art behave just like the real thing, from the way their heads nod, to being startled and rising to their hind legs, to galloping across the stage, with their body parts — and the people handling them — moving in perfect synchronization.
Of course, one must pretend their silent human puppeteers are not there on stage, but that’s part of the magic of a stage production: part stage prop, part human interaction, part imagination. With that in mind, it becomes easy to imagine Joey the warhorse galloping across a World War I battlefield with an officer on his back, or pulling a plough, or tenderly interacting with other horses and humans.
The serious, often sad tone of the story was occasionally peppered with humorous dialog — usually when Joey and Albert are horsing around, or between the soldiers to elevate themselves from the stress of battle – but in the end, the play is about loyalty and friendship that transcends species, the bonds forged in times of war, peace, and how they help us survive even the worst of what life throws at us.
For more information and tickets, check out Kravis’s website