Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Stage...

On Sunday, my wife and I went to see the Tony Award winning War Horse.  Before it was a Spielberg movie, before it was a play, it was a book for adolescents written in 1984.  The plot is a simple one and somewhat predictable. The characters are not terribly deep.  What makes the play are the astonishing puppets.  They move like real horses.  There are more puppets than just the horses, but they truly take the play to fascinating levels.  I know many connect to the puppets and react, but I never really forgot that they were puppets.  I didn't really feel like I related to them as I would the actual animal, but still I was drawn into the story of a boy and his horse.

Joey, a hunter, is a horse.  He is a cross of thoroughbred and draft horse.  We first meet him as a foal who is soon sold at auction.  All of the full bodied horses require three operators.  Two for the body and one at the head.  You soon forget that they are there and get used to the horses actually having eight legs.  What works here is that the operators are not hidden, but dressed in period costume and a part of the play.

Joey is raised by a boy named Albert Narracott whose drunken, prideful father causes no end of problems for the family.  In true melodrama fashion, Joey is eventually sold on the sly by the dad to the calvary for World War I.  Joey has of course already demonstrated himself an extraordinary horse having won  back his price in a bet. What follows is Albert's quest to find his horse on the battle fields of France.  Joey, of course, has his own adventures as he falls from British hands into the hands of a kindly German calvary captain, Fredrich Muller, who helps to make sure the horse is kept as safe as he can while he tries to help a French girl and her mother try to escape the war devastated country.  

Gone are glories of war, as men and animals die in terrible numbers.  Families lose sons and wives lose husbands and for some of these folks they may never know of this loss. Historically speaking, we are told in the program, Britain conscripted more than 1 million horses for the first world war and only 64 thousand would return.  We have seen Joey grow and to a certain degree we see this war through his eyes.  One of the more troubling aspects is that Albert and Fredrich, as is pointed out by characters in the play, are both seemingly more concerned with the horse than those dying around them.  It emphasizes the relationship with Joey and that so many lives were dependent on the animals, but at the same time reminds us of the terrible cost of war.

There were a few problems with the production we saw.  I have to admit the singing narration that become the musical voice of Joey, caught me off guard, but it too added to the theatricality of the show. While for the most part the cast performed their roles very well, I did have a slight problem with the little French girl.  Other than her name, I didn't understand a single word she said.  I checked with my wife and she said she had that problem too, so I know it was not just my ancient ears.  The actor who played Albert was quite good.  He was the understudy to the regular Albert.  My issue was that it was a bit hard to buy him as the fifteen year old Albert as he looked quite a bit older, this includes a receding hairline.  

The only other part was a slight technical design flaw.  At one point the horses are towing a large cannon for the Germans.  The gun swings around so that the audience can see it from the rear and there it is...the casters that very clearly are what make the gun move and not its fake wheels.  Surely, they could have covered them a bit.  I know with the theatricality of the horses, the design team probably didn't think anyone would think about them and with an exception of one old technician in the audience,  they are probably right.  By the way though, the tank is a wonderful set piece. The torn page that gives us projections of everything from a passing countryside to the explosions was a wonderful piece as well, although from my seat which was almost straight out, the animation could become a bit distracting.

What about the puppets? There are more than horses on stage.  There are ravens, flying swallows and even a goose that has personality plus. The horses, which were designed to respond to the nuances of the real counterpart were really amazing. In the pic below you can see how astonishing they are and the torn page projections screen pretty clearly.   

There is one thing I could not help but think, as a director of many an amateur production, is when this show becomes available for others to produce, how could any one do it justice or afford to perform it? All in all, it is an astonishing theatrical work. It is pure theatricality that is involving and draws its audience in. If you get a chance to see War Horse before the run closes or when it returns, it is well worth the dollars.