War Horse at the Orpheum Theatre

Albert and the Puppeteers in War Horse.  Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenberg.

Albert and the Puppeteers in War Horse. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenberg.

World War One, aka the Great War.  Unrelenting sordidness, a sea of blood seeping into endless mud, no-man’s-land stretching for hundreds of miles, forty plus million human beings killed or maimed, a whole generation lost.  No heroes, no real villains.  Just horror.

No heroes, that is, until War Horse (the National Theatre of Great Britain production, playing at the Orpheum, thorough June 23).  First a novel (by Michael Morpurgo), then a widely produced (and wildly successful) play, then a major motion picture directed by golden boy Steven Spielberg.  In War Horse, the hero is an animal, Joey, a magnificent horse, a running, neighing, leaping emblem of vitality, survivor of machine gun fire, artillery, horrifying mistreatment, barbed wire.  His spirit never flags.  We identify with the find-Joey obsession of his human keeper (no one could ever own an animal like Joey), Albert.  If Joey survives, so can humanity.  Finally, a hundred years after the event, War Horse provides us with a new way of understanding the Great War.

The superstars of this show are the horses.  One hates to use the diminishing word, puppets, though I guess that this is what they are.  There are five, and they each enjoy vivid and astonishing presence.  Animals, of course, but the personalities of their human handlers (each horse has three) shine through.  Every movement is carefully choreographed – and breathtaking.

The horse puppets were designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company.  They dominate.  Indeed, there is one scene when the horses are laid flat and the next scene has a jumpy edge; one half expects the horses to leap to their feet.  Marvelous.

Another luminary in War Horse is the creator of “sets, costumes and drawings,” Rae Smith.  The projections work marvelously well, drawings taking slow shape, sudden use of video, explosions given visual presence, etc.  War Horse features the scariest and most effective recreation of combat I’ve ever seen.  Bravura work.

The actors (mostly American for this tour) hold their own.  Excellent performances are turned in by Alex Morf as Albert; his obsession with saving Joey never becomes tiresome, as it easily could.  Angela Reed as Albert’s mother Rose gives the play a solid emotional anchor.  Chad Jennings excels as Lt. Nicholls; his death is truly shocking.

There are liabilities.  The sound was mushy (though loud and then some), often making the actors hard to understand.  Lighting was (inevitably, given that this is a tour) crude.  Perhaps because I had seen the film and thus knew the story, War Horse seemed long.  But most problems stemmed form the fact that the Orpheum will never be a satisfactory venue for non-musical drama – too cavernous, too echoed.  Straight plays (I dislike this term) struggle to fill it.

Still, War Horse is well worth seeing.  It will reorder your understanding of World War I.  And the work of the Handspring puppeteers is once-in-a-lifetime brilliant.

Did you like this review?  Did you not like it?  Do you have an opinion to offer?  Please, feel free to write a comment.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.





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