War Horse rode into Overture Hall last night for its Madison premiere. The play, which runs through June 15, came before the 2011 Steven Spielberg movie of the same name, but both are based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo. The page is still ghostly present, providing both a literal and figurative backdrop for the story.
War Horse opens on a bare stage, with just an overhang of what appears to be a solitary strip of ripped paper. This sheet turns out to be a screen, and on it, scenes from World War I Europe are sketched.
The play tells the story of Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox), a teenage farm boy, whose troubled, alcoholic father Ted (Gene Gillette) buys him a young foal. Ted is in a feud with his brother Arthur (Andrew Long) and overpays for the horse in an effort to best him, risking the family farm to do so. The foal is a proud, wild horse, half thoroughbred, half hunter. Albert names him Joey. True to genre, only Albert can tame young Joey, and in doing so, a lifelong friendship is born.
Joey, and all of the horses, birds and other animal characters, are brought to life through unique puppetry created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. Joey begins as a mere pony, but, in choreographed splendor, suddenly bursts forward into a full-grown horse that's twice the size of the smaller puppet. Three puppeteers control Joey (and all the other large horses, too). These puppeteers are, in many ways, the stars of the show. They bring personality, grace and majesty to each animal, turning them into characters as memorable as the human players on stage.
But the show is not only about the horses.
World War I looms large in the story. When Albert's father sells Joey to the British army, Albert enlists too, vowing to bring back the horse he loves. The action transitions from farm field to battlefield, and deeper themes emerge along with grander stagecraft. Soldiers and horses battle machine guns and shells in elegant, riveting ballets. Though the loud gunfire and bright, flashing effects made the crowd wince on opening night, these elements don't feel gratuitous or overdone.
War Horse transports the audience to an anguished battlefield where an equine cavalry is all but obsolete. The central question is raised: In a war so dehumanizing, how can a mere animal be worth anything at all? But Joey is worth something. He's the object of Albert's single-minded devotion. And in the end, he teaches viewers a great lesson. Grace, beauty and love overcome devastation.
War Horse is not a musical but features music throughout. From the soft whistle Albert uses to call to Joey, to the haunting Irish melodies sung as bombs fall, the sounds of War Horse are as powerful as the sights. War Horse is a moving show, well worth the ride.