The 2011 Tony Award Winning Best Play War Horse is now touring the nation, and is in Durham this week. The play, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, follows a young man named Albert as he enlists in the British army during World War I to find his beloved horse Joey, who was sold to the army by his father.
The horses in the production are brought to life by amazing puppets which are the creation of Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The puppeteers are nothing short of phenomenal as they make the life-size horse puppets come alive. Each horse (Joey and his pal Topthorn) is maneuvered by three puppeteers who man the head, heart, and hind. The movements of the horses are so lifelike right down to the minutiae of what it means to move like a living being. The horses twitch their ears, swish their tails, and actually appear to be breathing. After mere seconds on stage, the puppeteers dissolve away and it truly feels as if there are horses on stage. And the puppetry isn’t limited to equine characters - there’s a particularly humorous goose, several other kinds of birds, and even soldiers. It is a spectacle like none ever seen on stage, and one that you absolutely will not want to miss.
While the puppets are the stars of War Horse, the actors who play human characters also deserve a lot of credit for their wonderful work. As the main character Albert, the boy in search of his horse, Andrew Veenstra carries the story with talent and grace. Also particularly charming are the two song men, Nathan Koci and John Milosich, who provide a wonderful layer of beautiful music to the show. However, the show is truly an ensemble piece, and every actor on the stage is simply brilliant as they work together to tell this moving story. The cast is large (especially for a play), but not overwhelming – they work as one seamless entitiy.
The set is simple and wonderful. There are few set pieces, and the design centers around projections on a large piece of paper which is a giant version of a piece of paper ripped out of a sketchbook in the show. Although the Broadway set features a giant rotating stage and the tour set does not, the touring production is proof that the rotating set, while nice, is hardly necessary. The space is used smartly, and the audience level even serves as the setting for some trench warfare.
World War I marked a big clash between traditional warfare and new fighting tactics. The clash between old and new, cavalry and tanks, is a tragic one with intense ramifications. War Horse not only delves into the experience of the horses in World War I, but explores issues such as shell shock, an issue brought to life by Michael Wyatt Cox’s character, Billy. Be warned, the show doesn’t shy away from difficult things, and may not be appropriate for elementary schoolers. However, the show is absolutely brilliant and breathtaking. There’s never been a play quite like it.
War Horse runs through October 7. For tickets and more information, visit www.dpacnc.com.