Theatre Review: ‘War Horse’ at The Fox

By Manning Harris

“War Horse,” at the Fox through September 30, is a stunning, revelatory work of art that is a game-changer in what live theatre can be.  You may have seen the excellent 2011 Spielberg film; so did I.  It doesn’t matter.

“War Horse” works on a visceral, emotional level that is magical, even spiritual.  To say the vast Fox audience gave this show their rapt attention is an understatement.

So what’s all the fuss about, you ask?  In 1982 Michael Mopurgo wrote a children’s novel called “War Horse” about a horse named Joey in World War I.  It came to the attention of Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, of the National Theatre of  Great Britain.  They are the original co-directors; the show first played there for short, sold-out runs in 2007 and 2008.  Then it transferred to London’s West End in 2009, where it continues to play.

The play opened on Broadway in 2011 and won five Tony Awards, including Best Play. I have a friend who saw it there (at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre); he told me there were images in the play he would remember the rest of his life.  Last night at the Fox I finally understood what he was talking about.

We’re talking about a boy named Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and his love for Joey, his horse.  We’re talking about the horrors of The Great War, The War to End All Wars—World War I.  We’re talking about barbed wire, trenches, tanks, and poison gas.

But we also see bucolic country scenes of Devon, England, where a father buys a very young colt for his son, who nourishes his horse, and we see Joey grow to his full, majestic size, somewhat resembling the legendary triple-crown winner Secretariat.

This is where South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company comes into the picture.  These skilled artisans created Joey and the other horses, built of steel, leather, and aircraft cables.  Astonishingly, three men are used to give Joey movement, and even though they are partly visible, magic occurs.  You’ve heard of a phrase theatre folk use: the willing suspension of disbelief.  Last night, that phrase took on palpable, phantasmagorical form.  We believed.

The story itself is quite simple; Albert is told that Joey must be sold so that he (Joey, the horse) can fight for his country.  Albert is devastated.  And that, gentle reader, is the only aspect of the plot you’ll get from me.

Every aspect of “War Horse” is huge, brilliant, and state of the art.  There’s a powerful musical score (though the show is not a musical); there is breathtaking scenery, lighting, animation and projection design the like of which you’ve never seen on a stage.  The audience occasionally gasps at the sheer beauty and artistry of what they’re seeing; then they fall into a stunned silence, not wanting to miss a moment.

As you’ve heard me say, the size of the Fox overwhelms most shows; somehow, “War Horse” overcomes that (for this viewer).  The adaptation from the novel is by Nick Stafford.  The cast and crew are so large I can’t begin to name them here.

Depending on your emotional involvement, you may weep; but the sweep, grandeur, and humanity of “War Horse” are unforgettable.

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