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The Suburbanite
  • Theater Review: ‘War Horse’ visually impressive and emotionally gripping

  • Winner of five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play, “War Horse” is based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel about Joey, a hunting horse who is purchased by a hot-tempered, self-destructive man with Napoleon syndrome.

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  • Willingness of disbelief is a term that’s thrown around a lot when it comes to theater. The audience is willing to believe things that happen on stage that are unbelievable because they are performed well.
    However, never has it been so enthrallingly powerful than when watching the national tour of “War Horse” at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre.
    At first, when three people walk onto the stage with a mechanical horse — one moving the hind legs, one the front and another standing to one side of the head — it is jarring. What do we do? Do we ignore these people? Are they really making that whinnying sound?
    Within minutes, however, they disappear. These people are not hidden, mind you. They aren’t dressed in all black. They are wearing clothing appropriate for the time of the play: Britain during World War I. And the horse is transparent. Yet, the actors are so thoroughly convincing in their movements, from making the horse breathe, to eating grass and shaking in reaction to being touched, that they completely fade away. It was one of the most surreal theater experiences I’ve ever had.
    Winner of five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play, “War Horse” is based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel about Joey, a hunting horse who is purchased by a hot-tempered, self-destructive man with Napoleon syndrome (or so it seemed in this version) and brought up by his son Albert (Alex Morf). Joey and Albert are kindred spirits, so when Albert’s father sells Joey to the British cavalry and he is sent to France to fight, Albert quickly follows.
    Albert and Joey’s story lines are followed through the war, often happening on the stage at the same time even though they are in different places. What could have easily been confusing was done flawlessly. When Joey meets Topthorn, a larger, black horse, having both on stage made for the best scenes of the play. Those actors should get some sort of special award.
    The idea of euthanizing a mechanical horse might seem rather campy in theory. But on stage, the crowd has come to love these animals made of people and the moment garnered an audible reaction from the audience.
    I can’t say enough about this play. From the adapted screenplay by Nick Stafford to the set design, costumes and drawings (there is a large piece of torn paper that adds to the story line as the play moves along) by Rae Smith, to the incredible Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town choreographed by Toby Sedgwick, this production is one of the most visually impressive and emotionally gripping I have seen.