It’s hard not to fall in love with the colt (soon to be named Joey) that appears at the onset of "War Horse." Moving tentatively in a makeshift corral, he appears frightened by all the attention he’s getting from the townsmen in a small Devon town that have gathered for his auction. The time is 1914 - a date projected on a semi-circular screen that sits above the action in the first of handsome charcoal drawings used to notate the play’s numerous locales; and it is a reference that gives the audience pause: as history told us, it won’t be long before many of the young men bidding on the horse would be sent to fight in the new century’s first world war, one which will decimate a generation of Europe’s young men.
That, though, is far from the minds of those bidding on the colt, which comes down to a battle between two estranged brothers, both farmers, one prosperous, one not. Ted (Todd Cerveris), the less prosperous, wins out, though at a dear price: his mortgage money. This sets Rose (Angela Reed)
his long-suffering, if practical wife, off, but brings the colt into the life of their 16-year old son Albert (a convincing Andrew Veenstra) and it is love at first sight.
Such begins this variation on the familiar boy-meets-horse story, adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s 1986 children’s novel. It is an exquisitely staged experience - a dark, theatrical dream filled with spectacular effects and the ongoing wonder of puppetry as art. But it is also a premise in need of more nuanced story-telling. Like Steven Spielberg’s recent film adaptation, this "War Horse" has its humanist heart in the right place; but about mid-way through, I wished Mother Courage would make a cameo appearance - at least then there would have brought an edge to this sentimentalized, if strikingly realized, anti-war tableaux.
Perhaps that’s not being entirely fair - this is an adaptation of a children’s book, not a Brechtian polemic -- one with a simple premise that explores the ineffable bond between a man and an animal that transcends politics. It does this with exacting craftsmanship - when Joey must rise to the moment, such as in sequences where he needs to plow a field to win a bet or, even more dramatically, pull a tank through the mud of No Man’s Land, "War Horse" has enormous power. The staging by Bijan Sheibani (after Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ original) is a marvel of fluid movement and tone. The horse choreography (by Toby Sedgwick and Adrienne Kapstein) is beautiful to watch; as are the superbly constructed horses that are stylized, yet vividly real. (They are the work of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company). They command the stage even when the narrative slips into a clichéd melodrama that would have been right at home in a D.W. Griffith silent movie from the period. In fact the two main horses - Joey and Topthorn -- are more nuanced characters than any of the humans they encounter. For too much of the time, "War Horse" is too much like a puppet show with actors for comfort.
That, of course, is a minority opinion considering the response the play has received since it first appeared in London five years ago. It is a unique spectacular at odds with itself; eloquent in its imagery, but hollow in its dramaturgy. Still the work of the design team is reason enough to see it: never has a picaresque tale been brought to the stage with such cinematic sweep. The animated projections (executed by 59 Productions) and Rae Smith’s sets, costumes and drawings suggest both the historical period and fable’s dark tone with effective minimalism. The lighting design - by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn - beautifully captures a world out of joint, as does Christopher Shutt and John Owens’ jarring sound design. Onto this bleak landscape come Joey and Topthorn, who move with such spontaneity that they seem far more than constructs of wood, metal, cane and silk. There is none of the jerky, mechanical effects usually associated with puppets of this scale; instead the horses appear so alive that even their handlers all but disappear.
But when the puppets have more dimensions than that the humans with whom they interact, then "War Horse" falls short of its ambitious goal. The characters - Albert, the boy who follows Joey to the front; his good-hearted mom; his alcoholic dad; a French farm girl; and the myriad of military types on both sides of the battle that Joey encounters on his journey - are sketchily drawn and never emotionally involving. Stafford’s script has more unity than found in the Spielberg film, but it doesn’t resonate as much as repeat its anti-war message over and over again. It didn’t work on screen and it doesn’t on stage; though the image of Joey running from an ongoing tank and being caught in the barbwire is an image that will live with me long after the particulars of the story fade from memory.
The relationship between a child and his pet has been a perennial favorite for children’s books and films ("National Velvet," "Lassie," and "My Friend Flicka"); and watching "War Horse" brings to mind "The Black Stallion," an extraordinary film that actually captures that mystical bond. There was never such a moment in "War Horse." For all its stage magic, it’s the theatrical equivalence of a Trojan Horse; something to marvel at, but with nothing but hollow sentiment and clichés inside.
"War Horse" continues through October 21, 2012 at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Broadway Across America/Boston website.