There’s a thrilling moment near the beginning of WAR HORSE, where a young colt disappears from the stage, and in its place, suddenly blazing into view, is a magnificent full-sized thoroughbred. I swear it’s flesh and blood, heaving its flanks, flashing its tail, breathing. I held my breath too, as the stable boys on either side seemed barely able to rein in this astonishing creature.
It’s Joey, the WAR HORSE and Joey is a puppet– but more real and dramatically compelling than any of his human companions on that stage for the next few hours. Joey is the creation of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company and has been brought to dazzling life by three men, with fabric, struts, and hidden mechanisms to control every inch of this beautiful, moving, life-size sculpture, strong enough to hold a rider, and real enough to elicit tears and deep emotion from an entire audience. The illusion is complete–theater at its best– where we believe the lie and it liberates the truth about war, suffering, loyalty, and courage. This horse deserved a better play.
Though WAR HORSE won 5 Tony’s including BEST PLAY, it is anything but. The tale of an English boy whose beloved pet is sent off to fight in WW I, and whom the boy spends the entire play trying to find, is one long sentimental dirge. The human characters are barely sketched in, the action dramatically flat, as the usual platitudes about war are baldly trotted out. There’s a subplot involving a little French girl (terribly acted and miscast) which adds nothing, and which eventually and inconclusively peters out. There’s a mawkish encounter between two soldiers– one British one German; do we really need one of them to spell out the moral of the story:”There are widows on both sides because men can’t talk the way we are talking now.”?? Yuck.
The stagecraft alone is worth the price of admission. There’s a video screen slashed across the proscenium like a ragged page torn from history, while below it the lighting glows, from golden to garish, as lines of horses charge through the smoke, battling giant machines, getting tangled in barbed wire in the middle of no man’s land. WAR HORSE the play is like that–a no man’s land, but for the mechanical beasts that somehow, magically, bring it all to life.
Seeing is believing. WAR HORSE at the BOSTON OPERA HOUSE through October 21!