War Horse Offers a Different Kind of Hoofing
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.
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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