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26.10.12

'War Horse' at the Kennedy Center

After huge success in London and a run of almost two years in New York, Nick Stafford's stage adaptation of War Horse has come to the Kennedy Center Opera House, where I saw it on Thursday night. Somewhat incredibly, the story is drawn from Michael Morpurgo's book for young readers, in which the story is told from the view point of the horse. A hunter, part thoroughbred, Joey ends up on a farm raised by a boy named Albert Narracott, for whom the horse fills the absence of the relationship with his troubled father. In 1914, an Austrian archduke is assassinated in far-away Sarajevo, and Joey is bought up by the British cavalry, to fight in the Great War. When Albert gets the chance, he follows Joey to the trenches of the Somme. While I did not care much for Steven Spielberg's saccharine movie version, the play makes the same improbable plot twists seem much less sentimental, skating close to the edge of bathos but somehow avoiding it.

available at Amazon
M. Morpurgo, War Horse
(2012)
One of the things that helps make the play grand enough for the vast setting of the Opera House is the musical fabric that joins it together. Two "song men," Nathan Koci on accordion and singer John Milosich, appear from time to time to link together segments with affectingly simple renditions of folk songs that have the ring of Albert's native Devon. Chorus members broaden this sense of musical nostalgia -- for an age of village bands and common men and women singing together in unaccompanied harmony -- with their own contributions. This part of the musical backdrop far outweighs the incidental score in emotional punch, with its pre-recorded and over-amplified boom (music by Adrian Sutton, assisted by songmaker John Tams and music director Greg Pliska). Scenic backdrops scroll by, projected on a screen like a torn scrap of paper stretched across the stage (sets, costumes, and drawings by Rae Smith), as if in a reader's memory. The violence of the war scenes makes a much greater impact on stage than it did in Spielberg's film, likely because here it is presented as balletic mythography rather than cinematic documentary: that is, the clash of machine guns and tanks against the obsolete cavalry was more devastating as symbolic poetry, wrapped in memory and emotion, than in all its gritty reality. That being said, this play is really not for young children, some of whom were heard in the audience last night: the story is about the horror of WWI, not Black Beauty.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Kennedy Center’s ‘War Horse’ succeeds on a grand stage (Washington Post, October 26)

Ben Brantley, A Boy and His Steed, Far From Humane Society (New York Times, April 14, 2011)

Michael Billington, War Horse (The Guardian, October 18, 2007)

Charles Spencer, War Horse: Horse play is no puppet show (The Telegraph, October 18, 2007)
The acting by humans is fine and moving, but not all that exceptional: the slightly goofy, earnest Albert of Andrew Veenstra, the shrewish but loving mother of Angela Reed, and especially the flawed, blustering father of Todd Cerveris -- a much thornier character in the play than in the movie. Supporting characters make less of an impact, less-defined details along the way, but it is the horses that remain the most emblazoned on one's memory (designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company). Portrayed by massive, beautifully articulated puppets, the horses are brought to life by a team of at least three -- and sometimes more -- puppeteers (Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui for the star, Joey), making the horses walk, trot, gallop, nuzzle, whinny, stamp, shake their tails, flip their ears. At first, one is amazed by the expressive technique of the thousands of small movements that make this possible, but ultimately one ignores the presence of the puppeteers (who are costumed in ways that make them blend into each scene) and accepts the horses as living creatures. Similar things happen with other delightful puppets, too: a waddling, hissing goose; swallows swung around at the ends of poles; and grim crows that menace the dead. When one of the horses dies and the puppeteers stand and depart solemnly, the sense of life's wonder being extinguished is palpable. It is a most uncanny thing to watch.

This production continues through November 11, a significant date, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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