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War Horse (Review)

Hand-crafted life-size puppets spin emotional tale with heart and soul

By Rick Pender · March 28th, 2013 · Onstage
war horse - joey and topthorn - photo brinkhoff_mogenburgPhoto: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Critic's Pick

The touring production of the award-winning play War Horse is without question one of the most theatrically inventive and emotionally powerful shows I’ve seen in ages. It’s been broadly promoted, so perhaps you’ve heard that life-size puppets portray the central character, a horse named Joey, as well as other horses, swallows, crows and a pestiferous goose. English needs a new word for these creations, since “puppet” usually suggests something playful and childish. The remarkable creations of the Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa are majestic and believable, all the more engaging because you participate in imagining their reality. While War Horse derives from a novel for adolescents, its story is one that’s very grown-up — and about growing up. 

Albert (Alex Morf), age 14, bonds with a stubborn colt his father foolishly bought with mortgage money that should have been spent on their impoverished Devonshire farm in 1912 England.

Albert raises the spirited Joey, not just as a mount for riding but also, in an unlikely educational process, as a hardworking plow horse. Albert’s thoughtless father sells Joey to the British Army for military service in World War I. The horse survives harrowing combat, only to be captured by Germans and nearly worked to death pulling massive cannons. Underage Albert enlists, hoping to be reunited. Despite the fact you know the likely outcome of this tale spanning six years and two continents, their connection is portrayed with such profound depth and feeling that War Horse packs a tremendous wallop.

In addition to the imaginative stage work by performers who vividly bring the horses and other animals to life, War Horse features stage-wide projections (appearing overhead as hand-drawn sketches of countryside and combat), evocative music (sung by John Milosich, as well as the cast in stirring choral work, much of it rendered a capella) and more than 30 actors who play numerous roles and quickly assemble simple but suggestive props and bits of scenery. The brutality of war is ever present — and steadily condemned — but there are also touches of humor, especially when a British and a German soldier overcome mutual fear to free Joey from barbed wire. War Horse is a sweeping yet personal tale with heart and soul that everyone who loves storytelling should see.

WAR HORSE, presented by Broadway Across America at the Aronoff Center, continues through April 7.



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