I was not a fan of the recent Steve Spielberg movie, “War Horse.” So I went to The Fox to see the stage version a bit skeptical, even though I had heard some very laudatory comments. At the end of the evening, I was completely smitten by this fanciful and pioneering show. As the first act came to a close, the audience was literally stunned by what they had witnessed, and sat for a few moments in silence and unsuspected amazement.
The concept of using puppetry to propel the story of a farm boy and his horse seems, on the surface, to be risky at best. Then to move the story into a wartime theme that displays the grusomeness and waste of battle was a gamble of unheard of proportions. But in “War Horse,” thanks to the imagination and expertise of the Handspring Puppet Company, it all works with awe-inspiring results. Employing simple materials like wire mesh and plywood, and using the sensitive and understanding talents of three to four puppeteers inside and outside the puppet figure, magic happens. The animals and their movements & mannerisms are so authentic and detailed that you end up having no doubt they are the real thing. You wince when one of them is wounded or struggles. You begin to really care about the boy, the horse and the human price of World War I. Even if you know how it ends, the show’s final moments are still moving and fresh. There are even some lesser puppets to round out the barn yard. A pesky duck and some birds flying overhead are all part of the picture.
Though this is not a musical, the large ensemble cast sing on stage and are accompanied by pre-recorded music, much in the way a motion picture is scored. There are also selections of beautiful Irish folk music throughout, with one recurring song that is especially poignant about what we leave behind.
The staging of “War Horse” features frequent use of strobe lights, and occasionally stage weapons are fired. Many of the scene changes, especially in the second act, are abrupt for effect. Sound design works beautifully in this show and easily flows through all corners of The Fox. There is a backdrop that looks like a strip of sky on which are projected vistas and visuals that compliment what is happening at that moment.
And while we’re discussing what makes “War Horse” so special, let me not forget acting. The entire cast is outstanding, especially Alex Morf in the role more Albert, the young man who raises Joey, the horse at the center of the story.
You can get into a little trouble trying to be too descriptive of this very special show. Suffice it to say it must be seen to be believed. “War Horse” is magnificent. The imagery, presentation and cast are something you’ll remember the rest of your life.