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CultureMob Theater Review: ‘War Horse' a “must see” theatrical emo-ganza

Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and Joey (photo Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

Combine the oldest of theatrical devices – puppetry – and the newest – video projection, some amazing sound effects and a powerful emotional story and you have a theatrical event for the ages. The national touring company of War Horse is bringing it to stages around the country, after a 2-week stint (through February 24) in Seattle, and you should take almost any advantage you can to go see it. (A recap of venues coming up is below.)

The story is not new and the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo follows a long history of children and their beloved animals (Old Yeller, Big Red, The Yearling, and of course, Lassie Come Home). Morpurgo wanted to speak about World War I and the suffering of soldiers and the cavalry horses, and the horrors of war.

The basic story has a young English teen, Albert, bond to a horse he names Joey, and when World War I breaks out, Joey is sold to become a cavalry horse against Albert’s wishes. Albert runs away from home to join the cavalry and find Joey, and a horrific journey for both ensues. The horse is helpless to determine his fate, and Albert, as a lowly private is almost incapable of finding Joey. In a coincidental ending, with fantastical moments, and against all odds, they both survive to return home to England.

The bare story, though, doesn’t even begin to describe how the theatrical devices here elevate the production to stratospheric heights of achievement. That sounds hyperbolic.

Let’s start with the puppets and specially trained puppeteers. These puppets, mostly (but not all) horses made from dozens of carefully bent canes, special skin fabric and with metal spines to hold riders, are probably the most expensive puppets ever made. They are manipulated by three puppeteers and are made to move with such life-like skill that you forget they aren’t real.

Joey (fullgrown) and Topthorn (photo Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Joey as a foal (photo Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

The video projections, mounted high up on a jagged stage-wide screen, range from simple pencil drawings of bucolic farmland to representations of explosions from tanks and bombs, and daunting obstacles for horses to jump over. Combined with effective sound choices, the audience is transported to the middle of the war-torn French countryside.

A wonderful cast of human characters as a hard-working ensemble create the multitudes of characters required by the sprawling story. The video takes the place of much scenery, allowing a doorway to represent a cottage. Occasional visuals of war-dead include both actors and pieces of horse puppets that vividly evoke heart-ache once a visceral connection’s been made to “live” puppet horses.

The National Theatre of Great Britain, in partnership with The Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa created this spectacle in 2007 and it has been wowing audiences ever since. Suitable for children as young, perhaps, as ten, though emotionally challenging, this event may be one you’ll remember for many, many years to come.

For more Seattle information, go here.

Future tour dates include:

Portland, OR Keller Auditorium 02/26 – 03/03/13

Spokane, WA INB Performing Arts Center 03/05 – 03/09/13

St. Louis, MO The Fox Theater 03/13 – 03/24/13

Cincinnati, OH Procter & Gamble Hall – Aronoff Center for the Arts 03/26 – 04/07/13

Cleveland, OH Palace Theatre 04/09 – 04/21/13

Columbus, OH Ohio Theatre 04/23 – 04/28/13

Tampa, FL Carol Morsani Hall 04/30 – 05/05/13

Ft. Lauderdale, FL Broward Center 05/07 – 05/19/13

Fayetteville, AR Walton Arts Center 05/22 – 05/26/13

Charlotte, NC Belk Theater 05/28 – 06/02/13

Providence, RI Providence Performing Arts Center 06/05 – 06/09/13

Minneapolis, MN Orpheum Theatre 06/12 – 06/23/13

Appleton, WI Fox Cities Performing Arts Center 06/25 – 06/30/13