War Horse Remains Thrilling Theater On Tour But Has Lost A Bit Of The Original Magic

By Bill Hirschman

Magic is a fragile and ephemeral thing, no more so than in theater where any number of factors can underscore or undercut the mystical alchemy on any given night.

War Horse is cherished by many of us who saw it at Lincoln Center in 2011 as one of the twenty or so most moving and brilliantly executed pieces of total theater we have been privileged to see. There are adjectives that have lost their pungency by their indiscriminate use by the verbally lazy. One is amazing and another is awesome. To have seen War Horse is to be reminded of the strict dictionary definitions.

But we’ll bet a lot of people seeing the national tour at the Broward Center, while appreciating it as the highlight of the Broadway Across America season, also wondered what our unfettered and rapturous hoopla was all about.

Certainly, audiences continue to be thrilled by the geniuses who designed, built and now endow breath nightly into the larger-than-life puppets that nearly transmute into flesh-and-bone horses.  And the creatures are only one element among superbly conceived and blended facets of stagecraft that produce a transporting night of theater.

But it’s hard to shake the heretical truth that the extra sense of transcendence we felt in New York wasn’t there on the opening night of the two-week run.

So, yes, you should make a point of seeing this show. But the “why” it may not make your all-time list is a pretty simple and instructive lesson in how prosaic and mechanical such magic tricks can be.

It’s the venue. In Lincoln Center and the original production at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007, War Horse was presented in a modified thrust stage. Although much larger and wider and deeper, they resembled what Florida Stage had in Manalapan. That means that the edge of the stage bulges out into the audience, which puts the action seemingly into the laps of the watchers. It also means that you can see fellow audience members at the edge of your peripheral vision, creating a shared intimacy. Finally, both of the original audience chambers are about half the size of the Broward Center, Kravis and Arsht, with even the furthest patrons no more than a score of rows back, and most of the seats rise steeply in tiers so that many audiences members look down at the action.

All of this is lost in the traditional proscenium stage with its distancing picture frame and an orchestra pit space between the stage and audience. This is not a problem when you’re staging The Importance of Being Earnest or Wicked. But when the key is creating an immersive illusion, a thrust works best. If you saw Cats in New York or even better in the more intimate thrust theater in London, you’ll know how the magic is muted or even erased in a proscenium setting when it goes on the road. Critics gratefully get darn good seats, so we can’t tell you what this show looks like from the back rows or the balcony of the Broward Center’s 2,658-seat Au-Rene Theater. Perhaps it still works. We’d be interested in hearing from audience members.

The show has changed other ways, according to its stage manager. Lincoln Center has both a turntable and a stage that reaches back 50 feet further than most houses on the road. Both aspects are missing. Fewer entrances are made from the audience as was done in New York and London.  Finally, for the better, the script, which even War Horse champions thought meandered a bit, has been shortened.

War Horse Factoids

War Horse is a massive production on the road which has sacrificed nothing other than the turntable.

* There are nine horse puppets, including Joey as a foal and an adult, the huge Topthorn, the emaciated horses, plus puppet soldiers to ride them, corpse-eating crows and a barnyard goose for comedy relief.

* The horses are made of Finnish plywood, Indonesian cane for the ribcages, foam rubber, aluminum backbones, glass eyes and leather-like strips for the tail and mane. The translucent mesh of skin is a thin stretchable nylon that the puppeteers can see through,

* The horse frames weigh between 60 to 80 pounds and the actors who ride them can weigh no more than 170 pounds in deference to the two puppeteers directly inside the framework.

* The company has 33 performers and between 15 to 20 crew and administrators who travel with the show.

* The lights, props, costumes and sets (including the full sized tank) require nine semi-tractor trailers for transport. Loading in and setting up at each theater can take 16 hours and packing up takes seven hours.

For those with no idea what to expect, War Horse is based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Murpugo that tells the story of a farm boy in the English countryside before World War I who bonds with a horse. When the boy’s father sells the horse to the military, the boy enlists to retrieve his beloved animal.  The story is told in the voice and through the eyes of the horse, Joey.

Dramatist Nick Stafford made many changes including dropping Joey as narrator. Directors Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris combined with the jaw-dropping skill of the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa to mount a premiere in 2007 that swept the Olivier Awards. It moved with the same creative team but an American cast to New York in 2011 where it swept five Tony Awards including Best Play. Steven Spielberg’s producer Kathleen Kennedy saw the show in 2009 and began work on a very different film version released in 2011. The current tour began rehearsals in March 2012 and has been on the road since July.

War Horse is still a straight-forward children’s story with no complexity or sophistication but an emotional resonance about loyalty, friendship, man and animal bonding, all prevailing over the adversity of the harrowing horrors of war. Stafford’s version opens with the farm boy Albert persuading his struggling family to buy a colt that is half draft horse, but half thoroughbred. But two years later, the father risks the horse in a bet that forces Albert to feverishly train the race horse to pull a plow. But then the father sells Joey to the British cavalry without Albert’s knowledge and the horse is shipped off to the newly-declared war on the mainland. To follow and find Joey, Albert lies about his age to join the Army. The play then charts the two characters’ separate odysseys through nightmarish trench warfare and suicidal 19th century cavalry charges into the mechanized mouths of the 20th century machines guns, which claimed the lives of millions of horses and much of a generation of young men.

War Horse makes no bones about being artifice, but the result is the sui generis of theater —what this particular art form can do that no other can. The literalness of film allows an audience to passively watch a work of art; theater forces the audience to invest its imagination and therefore it’s buy-in to the creation of the art.

The publicity focuses on the puppets, which include a younger and a mature Joey, the sable-flanked Topthorn and six others, plus crows and a comical goose. Visually, they are not at all realistic, clearly an artistic restatement of Nature – skeletal frameworks with pipes and pulleys and hand controls clearly seen. Three puppeteers visibly work each horse with a minute attention to detail from the rising and falling of their chests to the graceful bend of their nuzzling necks, from the insolent whip of the tail to the curious tilt of the ears. The team members switch around; the night we saw it, Joey as a foal was animated by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica; Joey as an adult was Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger, and Topthorn was Christopher Mai, Harlan Bengel and Rob Laqui.

The puppets are delightful, even seen in the sunlight as we did the morning before opening night. But it cannot be overstated that the triumph of War Horse is actually the superb melding of another half-dozen theatrical skill sets: minimalist but evocative settings, morphing lights and a sound design that is alternately subtle and overwhelming, affecting musical underscoring and folk songs performed live, perfect pacing recreated on the road by Bijan Sheibani (a former colleague of Miami’s Tarell Alvin McCraney) and above all, a visual sense of movement and spectacle that fuses into something you cannot experience anywhere else. In the right seats, you won’t forget the sight of a tank coming over the top directly at you as machine gun fire is assaulting your eyes and ears.

The acting is not especially stunning although absolutely serviceable, led by Alex Morf as Albert and Andrew May as German cavalry officer Friedrich Muller; bravura performances would probably detract from the illusion. But it must be noted that the thick Devon and German accents made a good deal of the dialogue unintelligible.

If the road production of War Horse falls just this side of paradise, to borrow a phrase, it’s still close enough to make the journey.

War Horse runs through May 19 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes not including a 20-minute intermission. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday;  2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $39.50 – $99.50 with club level seating $119.50.  For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.



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