On Stage: A Moving Story of a Horse

 

Photos: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

It only took five years for this War Horse to gallop into Pittsburgh. But which version? Not Michael Morugo’s award-winning children’s book, which has been around since 1982. And not Stephen Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film (2011), which actually beat this production to the local finish line.

This was another kind of animal — the stage version that premiered in London in 2007, then captured New York by a storm in 2011. Why did it take so long? Perhaps the producers wondered if the urban chic NYC crowd/ American audiences would fall for the story of a British farm boy and his horse? And with the added violence of a World War I backdrop, so far removed from our lives?

But great art and entertainment transcend almost everything, just like Joey, the War Horse himself. It’s a simple story of love and trust between the horse and Albert, a young farm boy who gets him as a foal and raises him, presumably forever. But World War I intervened and Joey was sold to the army.

War I was the first major conflict that pitted the British old-school calvary against the Germans and their newly-invented machine guns. However, the horses were no match and nearly a million were killed.

That brings up another question. Would War Horse, the play, be able to fill the vast reaches of the Benedum Center? So it did, in stunning fashion, by elevating a childrens’ novel (albeit through a horse’s narrative) with style and grace and piercing drama.

At times the scenic design merely suggested a house with a window and door and a corral where cast members held sections of the railings. But above that was a wide swathe of what looked to be hand-made paper. The changing buildings, landscapes and dates, projected so subtly overhead, resembled the drawings made by one of the major characters, Captain Charles Stewart. They served to clarify the locales over a four-year time period, 1914-18.

But if those elements conveyed the relative unpretentiousness of the time in rural England and France, the lighting and sound design conjured up the emotional and physical impact of war, like startling bombs, inclement weather and a black light curtain at the rear of the stage through which a raft of villagers or a military regiment or those marvelous horses appeared.

Everything proceeded in a seamless fashion, each bit serving only to progress the plot.

But there was the puppetry, not only life-sized, but larger than life. Joey was given his breath and personality by three men, one at the head, one at the heart and one at the hind. That’s why I was there, to see the choreography, improvisation and movement coordination.

At its best it was undetectable, giving Joey an emotional range and, yes, the heart to accomplish so many feats of heroism. I liked the idea that he was slightly smaller and more muscular than his “friend,” the beautiful black stallion Topthorn. But his reddish brown “coat” gave him a certain warmth in a wash of mostly dark and neutral colors.

It has been written that these puppeteers from Handspring Puppet Company were chosen for different things — some dancers, some actors who moved well and some who were good team players, as might have been the case for the hind section.

So I purposely wasn’t swept away by the horses and took time periodically to observe the manipulation. It was easy to see Christopher Mai initiate the trot as he pulled Joey’s head. Derek Stratton would have to hold a position with bent legs for long periods of time as the heart, but he would slowly pulse for an occasional breath. Rob Laqui had to respond quickly and provide a swift propulsion for the back legs.

Therefore, even in “quiet” moments, there was a sense of being. And when the horses literally “jumped” to the fore, as in the ending to the first act, the movement was nothing short of spectacular. Or to see Joey battle a menacing German tank, which added so much to the mounting intensity.

We are accustomed to seeing an epic sweep to the movie genre. But it is rare to see it on the stage. Bottom line: War Horse has to rank as one of the more memorable theatrical productions in my memory. A must-see.

 

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