Thursday, May 10, 2012

Theatre: War Horse

Most people already know by now that War Horse is the story of teenage farm boy and his beloved horse Joey.   Foolishly purchased by Albert's drunken father with money he could not afford, Joey is forced to learn how to pull a tractor and plow.  This skill saves his life when he is later sold to the British Cavalry during World War I.  Desperate to be reunited with Joey, under-aged Albert secretly enlists and spends the rest of the war searching for his horse.

On top of its epic plot, what makes War Horse special is its use of hand-spring puppets to portray Joey, Topthorn (another army horse) and all the other animals depicted in the play.  Not since The Lion King have we seen such mastery of puppetry on stage.  However, War Horse takes it to the next level.  Puppeteers are trained to produce movements and sounds so realistic that within seconds you forget that you are not watching live animals, despite clearly seeing the humans manipulating the gears.  While this is especially true for the horses, it even applies to the squawking goose that terrorizes the farm, and the ominous crows that act like vultures, soaring and swooping in search of dead bodies during the war.

It takes 3 puppeteers to bring each horse "to life".  The puppeteer who is "The Head" walks beside guiding the horse, and controls all head and neck movements including twitching of the ears.  The "Heart" and the "Hind" puppeteers carry the frame of the body from underneath and bare the weight of any rider.  The "Heart" controls the front legs and simulates the appearance of the horse's breathing.  The "Hind" controls the back legs and the tail.  All three participate in making the various horse sounds. 

As dazzling as the puppets were, I was also impressed by other factors in the show, which had a powerful, emotional score and strong performances especially by Albert and his n'er do well drunken father Ted.  The staging of the war scenes were augmented by overhead video that set the dates and locations of the battles.  The Battle of the Somme started out with video images of soldiers marching over a hill, and as they got closer, the images were replaced by real soldiers approaching on stage out of a mist.  The effect was haunting.  At one point a massive tank rolled onto the stage and as it swept around, part of it swooped over the heads of the audience.  Sitting in the third row, it was hard to resist the urge to duck so as not to be decapitated.

This show was really something special and even though I usually don't like war stories, this was one I could not say "Neigh" to (sorry, Rich really wanted this bad pun to be used...).  Anyways, War Horse is a show not to be missed.

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