New York City Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, Broadway
It was famed conservationist John Muir who said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That is the lesson we get from the brilliant, unmissable “War Horse” which, though on a children’s book, reaches out to a wider adult world.
This is among the most thrilling pieces of theatrical magic you’re ever likely to see. Forget complaints that the script is lightweight, that the sentiments are overboard, that the ideas are time-worn. Those who think this is merely the tale of a boy and his horse miss its deeper implications.
Hidden in the production of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel are metaphysical depths that seep into the unconscious. By having horses portrayed as constructions manipulated by three handlers is to bridge the gap between humans and animals. We are all inhabiting the same world, each connected to each whether by biblical enjoinder of dominion or observable fact of interdependence.
The boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, will-boy-regain-horse trajectory is familiar. Substitute “Lassie” or “National Velvet” for a similar tale. But the puppets make all the difference, becoming more real than real. At the performance caught, for example, when something terrible was about to happen, one audience member shouted, “Oh, no” and another buried her face in her husband’s chest.
In England just before World War I, a hardscrabble farm family – mother, father, son –struggles to keep up the mortgage payments. Ted, the father, has a jealousy-filled relationship with his richer brother Arthur, so, when a foal comes up for sale, they bid against each other. Ted wins and gives the animal to his son, Albert, for care and feeding.
The bond between horse and boy is immediate, as Albert teaches the newly named Joey to pull a plow. In exchange, says Ted, the horse is his to keep. But the promise is broken when war is declared and 100 pounds is offered for cavalry horses.
Joey is shipped off to France to face machine guns, barbed wire and, eventually, harsh treatment. Bereft, Albert follows, joining the army and, in the process, maturing into a responsible adult. To tell more would be giving away an evening of open-mouthed suspense, but the war’s devastation was horrendous for man and beast: only 62,000 of the one million English horses taken to France returned home.
The production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is astonishing. Many in the cast of three-dozen take multiple roles with outstanding turns by Boris McGiver as the drunken, pitiful Ted, Seth Numrich as Albert, Alyssa Bresnahan as the mother and Peter Hermann as Hauptmann Friedrich Müller, a kind German officer.
But it’s the horses, the grown-up Joey and his friendly rival Topthorn, who pierce the heart. Breathing, flipping their tails, moving their ears, bowing their heads, rearing up, they are mesmerizing. Designed and fabricated by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Co., they deserve their own Tonys.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 24, 2011