By PAM HARBAUGH
A simple story and elegant production concept in ‘War Horse’ create a resonating theater experience that will set you crying for the artistry as well as the feel-good story of love and loyalty.
The drama, adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s chldren’s book, begins in England during World War I and focuses on a teenage boy, Alfred, and Joey, the horse he has raised.
Joey comes to life by a large puppet which moves and sounds so believable you forget the three puppeteers giving it body and sound. That puppet has become the most famous aspect of this stage show. But just as stunning is the overarching concept created by the show’s originators, directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The high-concept style teems with artful integrity rich in the history of story theater and ancient Bunraku puppet theater. In it, horses, birds, geese, vultures, a bomb and even a gigantic World War I tank are puppeted by an ensemble of players who move minimal scenery and drift in and out of character, advancing the storyline.
Scenographer Rae Smith creates an effectively simple scenic design, using what looks like a gigantic piece of ragged paper slashing above the horizon. This becomes the page torn from history upon which are projected simple line drawings and animations suggesting location and dramatic action, especially during battle.
The gentle and even fanciful qualities to this impressionistic style forge a remarkable raw power. Before the end of the first act, Joey is one of four horses about to charge into battle. Soldiers sit astride the horses, beginning a slow motion advance. A bomb, held aloft on a long pole by another puppeteer, “launches” in slow motion from one side of the stage and blasts in sound and light in the midst of the cavalry. Bodies fly off horses in slow motion followed by parts of horses flying through the air. The horror is inescapable, leaving you rather gobsmacked by the power of it all.
Certainly, the original children’s story takes on adult substance here. But, ironically, sitting in the audience you become like a child again, on the edge of your seat, mouth agape, with your imagination invoked to fill in the blanks. You are involved, become rapt at the storytelling and drawn by theater well done and satisfying on many levels.
Although a lone singer provides occasional narration, this is not a musical; and how encouraging to see the Bob Carr’s 2,500 seats filled with an audience so caught up in the theatrical experience before them.
Oh. One more thing: bring hankies.
Read my story about the horse puppets used in ‘War Horse’ in FLORIDA TODAY by clicking HERE . To view my video about opening night reaction, click HERE .
SIDE O’ GRITS:
“War Horse” curtain is 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets start at $41. The Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre is at 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando. Call 800-982-2787 or visit orlandobroadway.com.