Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"War Horse"

Some things never change: the value of loyalty, the power of love, the horrors of war.  But some things change dramatically.  The conflict between these eternal concepts set against the backdrop of a world that is being transformed by technology is at the heart of what makes "War Horse" such a powerful theatrical experience.

World War I was called "the war to end all wars."  It could be more accurately described as the "war that changed all wars."  Prior to the invention of the machine gun, the airplane, the telephone - and other innovations that were first put to use in the interest of martial ends in WWI - a cavalry rider was among the most feared weapons of war.  But once a single soldier could fire hundreds of rounds a minute, and Sopwith Camels could rain death from above, the horse and rider on the field of battle were suddenly vulnerable.

"War Horse" tells the story of Joey, plucked from his home in England, where he is much loved by young Albert, and taken to France as a cavalry horse.

I won't go deeper into the story than that, because I'd rather not spoil the many twists and turns along the way.  "War Horse" is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this production is how well the richness of the novel comes through on stage.  I love a good story, and this is a terrific one, filled with obstacles, triumph, humor and pathos.

The most commented-upon aspect of "War Horse" (the play) is that the production uses complex puppets to portray the horses (and other animals) - and with good reason, the puppets are incredible.  Every aspect of the horses are articulated. Even the ears, so important to reading a horse's mood, turn and twitch and lie flat.  The horse puppets are controlled by multiple performers, but after the first 20 minutes or so, you stop  noticing the puppeteers and see only the horses.  They even have actual breath - which I assume comes from pressurized air canisters hidden in the heads.  The overall effect is stunning.

For my readers in the Bay Area, "War Horse" is coming to the Curran Theater this August.  Though it will be impossible to recreate the experience of the enormous stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, the magic of "War Horse" will still come through.  Like the cavalry horses of old, "War Horse" simply packs too much punch not to.

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