note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
In The National Theatre of Great Britain and Bob Boyett’s Tony Award-winning epic, “War Horse,” at the Boston Opera House through Oct. 21, people and plot take a back seat to Handspring Puppet Company’s horses.
And what magnificent steeds they are!
At first glance, they’re obviously manmade equines, but after watching their (and their amazing puppeteers’) uncanny movements, they become living, breathing, graceful creatures.
Besides these whinnying, galloping, charging, 8-foot steeds, Handspring’s puppets include peaceful songbirds, two flapping geese, flesh-eating black vultures, and cane-structured, looming, battle tanks. Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation of multi-decorated British children’s author-laureate, Michael Morpurgo’s, beloved novel has a simple plot, set in Great Britain and Europe’s World War I era.
The play made its world premiere in Britain in 2007 and is currently enjoying an open-ended run in London’s West End. It received accolades in the Lincoln Center in New York in 2011, and won five Tony Awards, including Best Play. The book and movie were also wildly successful.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani, vocalist John Milosich, accompanied by accordionist-instrumentalist Nathan Koci (who’s making his stage debut here), narrate the story, folk-style.
In 1912, 15-year-old farm boy Albert’s dad, Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) buys him a handsome, young Hunter horse at a grossly inflated bid price, 39 guineas. Later, in a drunken wager with his more affluent brother, Arthur Narracott (Brian Keane), Ted almost loses Albert’s horse, Joey.
When war breaks out in 1914, financially struggling Ted sells Joey to the British cavalry for 100 pounds, to be used as a war horse. (Britain actually recruited more than a million horses to serve in World War I, but only 67,000 returned to their owners). Although Albert is too young to enlist, his uncle Arthur enlists his reluctant son Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox).
Although Lt. Nicholls, (Jason Loughlin) promises to ride Joey himself and ensure the steed’s safety, he’s killed in battle. So is Billy. And Joey is captured by the Germans. When Albert receives by mail a sketch book from Nicholls posthumously, he runs away and joins the army, leaving his mother, Rose, (Angela Reed) bereft. Amid terrifying, raging attacks and battles in Calais, France, Albert searches for Joey, who along with dashing black horse, Topthorn, has gained legendary status as a war horse.
As rockets blare, machine guns rat-a-tat, cannons shatter everything in sight and battles escalate to 1918, the stage explodes with lights, deafening booms, fallen horses and soldiers, all recorded with Rae Smith’s pencil sketches in a large, jagged swale with changing, moving projections. Smith’s minimalist costumes and set enhance theatrical effects of war’s fury.
Morpurgo also conveys not all Germans are evil. Capt. Friedrich Muller (sensitively portrayed by Andrew May), nurtures Joey and tenderly cares for a French mother and young daughter Emilie, trying to protect them from harm.
The real magic, though, flourishes with the horses’, geese’s and birds‘ puppeteers, dramatically accented by Paule Constable’s original lighting and Christopher Shutt‘s sometimes explosive, other times, serene, realistic sound effects and Adrian Sutton’s music (directed by Greg Pliska).
Although the actors’ British accents are sometimes difficult to interpret, “War Horse” is so action-packed and self-explanatory, words aren’t necessary. It’s a classic production that appeals to all generations.
BOX INFO: Two-act, multi-award-winning epic, presented by The National Theatre of Great Britain and Bob Boyett, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, through Oct. 21, at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, 1,6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $33. Call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787 or visit www.BroadwayInBoston.com.