War Horse Offers a Different Kind of Hoofing

The British World War I tale marches into Lincoln Center

War is hell, horses are noble beasts, and nothing comes alive onstage more magically than a well-manipulated puppet. Holding these truths to be self-evident, as we all do, you can have a pretty good time at War Horse (Vivian Beaumont Theater), and your children will probably have an even better one, if they don't mind its length (two hours and 40 minutes, including intermission).

Lovers of literature and drama, who might be looking for something that goes a little beyond the simple truths stated above, will find that they've come to the wrong shop. I assume that Michael Morpurgo's "young-adult" novel, from which Nick Stafford has carved the script for this elaborate spectacle, allots some time to grounding its events more fully in reality, but it's still essentially not much more than Lassie, Come Home with a horse instead of a dog, and World War I to heighten the tension. Sentimental animal stories tend to run true to form, and this one will surprise nobody: Boy gets horse, boy loses horse, but boy and horse find each other at the end, just in time for the Armistice bells to ring on cue.

As a spectacle, the piece works enormously well. Rae Smith's designs keep a barrage of projections going during the battle sequences without ever distracting from the human activity in the foreground; Adrian Sutton's music, similarly, sustains a steady flow of underscoring that only rises to drown out other elements when it's supposed to. The two giant horses, manipulated by teams of handlers under the direction of Handspring Puppet Company, are impressive enough to make you wonder at moments if they're real long after you've seen the human legs under the horse bodies.

To the front lines of puppetry!
Paul Kolnik
To the front lines of puppetry!


War Horse
Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's novel
Vivian Beaumont Theater
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200, warhorseonbroadway.com

Outside its gestural flamboyance, though, the show runs desperately thin, tracking through familiar war-story events in an almost mechanized manner, with wall-to-wall oversimplification. All male authority figures—fathers on the home front, superior officers in battle—are no-goods, unreliable or unrelenting; underlings are befuddled but sincerely peace-loving. (The stock war-hating German captain shows his virtue by attempting to lower his rank, switching identities with a dead ambulance orderly.) The co-directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, try to cover up the simple-mindedness by assembling a first-rate cast and then making everybody scream and shout throughout: Hardened country folk shriek at every unpleasant event; battle-hardened troops screech at every explosion. No drama here, but, oh, what a lovely horse!

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Wow, talk about not putting in a spoiler alert! As cliched as it might be, you gave away the ending, and hence, ended any chance of suspense, since the entire second act is devoted to Albert's search for Joey.


Yeah, that was a little unnecessary.

Had I read this before seeing the show, I might not have enjoyed it quite as much; trite though the story is, its presentation struck me as sufficiently dark that I wasn't so sure whether Joey would live. Or indeed, (SPOILER!) whether Albert would even recognize the animal in time to reunite even briefly -- or instead miss his improbably-fortunate chance altogether, and spend the rest of his life (perhaps mercifully) unaware of having coming so close.

Clearly the floodgates were being primed, one way or another. But up until the final moments, I couldn't have said for certain whether we were headed toward a tear-jerking death, a sobbing-with-joy reunion, or even an agonizing "near miss" in terms of any kind of closure at all. (Though I can well imagine that the latter option might have prompted the interesting spectacle of a theatre full of tear-stained New Yorkers rising in highly-vocal rebellion against such a cruel denouement).

All of which is to say that, when a play depends as heavily as this one does on melodramatic manipulation, spoilers like MF's do seem a tad below-the-belt.

He's right, the show works best as pure gorgeous spectacle. But it's also got a perfectly serviceable story to tell, and perfectly legitimate (if ludicrously easy) tears to jerk. Why spoil the fun by giving away the ending?

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