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War Horse's theatrical alchemy brings out horrors of combat

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The horse that looks out at you from the program is a real one, its glistening eye, widened in fear, fringed with eyelashes and a hank of mane.

It is a testament to the power of theatre that the assemblage of wires, leather and Tyvek created by the Handspring Puppet Company is a real horse too.

Thanks to the work of a trio of deft, athletic puppeteers, the chestnut hunter who goes from his English farm to the frontlines of France in the First World War, is a living, breathing creature whom audiences will gladly follow into battle.

Despite the fact that the three actors (Danny Yoerges, Adam Cunningham and Dayna Tiezen) manipulating him are clearly visible at all times — creating his every snort and whinny, stomping his feet and twitching his ears — they veritably vanish.

This act of theatrical alchemy is reason enough to buy a ticket.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, War Horse, a National Theatre of Great Britain production, is neither subtle nor especially profound — it’s A Boy and His Horse meets War Is Hell — but it is undeniably one of the most moving theatrical experiences you will ever have, often downright wondrous.

The play opens in Devon in 1912, when Ted Narracott (Gene Gillette), a hard-drinking, sullen farmer, buys a horse at auction. Half-thoroughbred, half-draft horse, the animal is of little use on a farm, but Ned’s son Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox) adores the spirited beast, whom he names Joey.

The knock-kneed colt (operated in part by former Winnipeg actress Mairi Babb, who is also the show’s assistant puppet captain) and the boy bond charmingly until, in a stunning moment that elicited gasps on opening night, the colt dramatically leaps into adulthood.

Their idyllic farm life is shattered with the advent of the Great War, when the greedy Ted sells Joey to the British cavalry.

When the soldiers and horses arrive in France, they find warfare has changed; the advent of machine guns and barbed wire has made combat on horseback foolhardy and dangerous for both man and beast.

Albert, meanwhile, lies about his age and enlists in a desperate bid to reunite with Joey. The separated companions’ harrowing journeys through the final years of the war make up the bulk of this two-and-a-half-hour show (including 20-minute intermission).

The stage design by Rae Smith is minimal but effective, featuring what looks like an oversized strip of torn paper hanging above the stage, on which are displayed lovely line drawings and dramatic projections that help set the scene, whether it’s the English countryside or the trenches of the battlefield.

As for the latter, the battle scenes are cleverly stylized but no less visceral for it; as a matter of fact, they often deliver a deeper gut-punch than more realistic scenes in movies. (Young children may well be frightened by the violence and noise, not to mention the dead horses.)

And, oh, those horses. Sturdy Joey is joined in battle by the elegant black stallion Topthorn, and meets the ragged, swaybacked Coco and Heine, both on their last legs.

All of them play into our tendency to have more sympathy for animals than for people, and it works. Soldiers fall to gunfire and shrapnel left and right, but it’s the horses who really make us feel the insanity and horror of combat.

That’s bad news for the human actors in War Horse, who are dwarfed, both literally and figuratively, by their expressive puppet co-stars.

It’s partially the fault of the story, which doesn’t go much beyond broadly stroked stock characters (though Andrew Long has some fun with the blustery Sgt. Thunder).

Also, the British accents are erratic — is Joey a horse or an ’orse? — and, later, so are the German and French ones, which is not only distracting but sometimes confusing.

In many ways, War Horse has the hallmarks of a theatrical warhorse — an over-familiar, perennially popular work. It’s manipulative, using music to cue our emotions. It’s unabashedly sentimental and melodramatic. You can see the ending coming furlongs away.

In other ways, however, it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Yes, an enormous horse puppet can make grown men weep — and when they do, it’s not just at the anthropomorphizing of an animal, but at the folly of man.


Updated on Thursday, June 19, 2014 at 12:55 PM CDT: Adds video

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