There are times when theater is truly larger than life. There are times when it inspires with the message of the story and the creativity of the production, the spectacle of theater which teaches us something about the spectacle of life and encourages us to live on a grander scale. Not in material possessions, but in our thoughts and aspirations. War Horse, which opened at the Fox Wednesday night to an enormous crowd, is just such a theatrical adventure and the audience’s pleasure was marked by a proper standing ovation at the end of the night.
War Horse is the story of a horse, Joey, and his young owner, Albert, played with great charm by Alex Morf. This is a play about loyalty, bravery and the bond between humans and horses. Albert’s father, always in need of money, sells the beautiful hunter to the army just as World War I is beginning. Albert, lying about his age in order to enlist, goes searching for his beloved horse in France.
And how do you bring a horse onstage? Puppets. These puppets are made of cane, leather, carbon fiber and aluminum spines (so they can be ridden) and stand about 8 feet tall. They were created by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company. At first they seem a little like the horses ridden by the Nazgul in Tolkien’s trilogy, skeletal and sinewy. Slowly, they develop and each puppet (four horses and a goose) has its own personality. There is little effort to conceal the puppet masters and none is needed.
Eventually the people fade and all you see are the horses. This was especially true when Joey and Topthorn encounter each other and fight for dominance, and in the battle scenes and explosions that happen in slow motion. But when you do see the handlers, they are beautifully integrated into the movement.
The technical elements of the play combine gorgeously, music and folk songs, led by Nathan Koci and John Milosich tangle with Christopher Shutt’s sound design, and the horses’ voices, and evoke a haunting, lyrical, often explosive soundscape. The torn swathe of sketchbook used for a backdrop, upon which drawings and animations are projected is brilliant. Overall I found the lights highlighted the war scenes, but I sometimes found the stage too dark to see the actors and my eyes felt strained by the end.
My companion said, “I feel as if we are strapping into a ride,” and away we went. There is an ability to astonish about this play that leaves you a bit breathless at times at what you’ve just experienced. It’s not just the puppets, but also the lights, sound, the people; it’s a truly stunning work of devotion from the ensemble. What a pleasure it must be to create this magic every evening for a new audience.
The storyline is sad and harsh for young children but not improper, if they’re of an age to know about the horror of war. The war scenes have stayed with me, as an image of light or sound, and they have a terrible beauty. I would recommend you see it for yourself before War Horse leaves town.
War Horse continues at the Fabulous Fox through March 24th.