'War Horse' wraps successful KenCen run

Sentimental animal tale scores big time with its amazing puppets. Photo: Kennedy Center

WASHINGTON, November 10, 2012 – The traveling production of “War Horse” wraps up this weekend at the Kennedy Center after what appears to have been a largely successful run. Due to a variety of conflicts, we hadn’t gotten it into our somewhat diminished regular reviewing schedule. But when a friend of this reviewer’s esteemed spouse was unable to use his tickets, we were delighted to make use of them to catch this unusual and well-publicized show.

“War House”—the subject of a popular film as well as an imaginative original stage production by the National Theatre of Great Britain—is the somewhat fanciful story of, well, “a horse and the boy who loved him,” to borrow a tagline from that old TV show “My Friend Flicka.” 

The storyline for both the Stephen Spielberg film and the National Theatre production is derived from a novel by Michael Morpurgo. The writer’s semi-picaresque tale involves the close relationship an English teen develops with a feisty “half-breed” horse that’s part thoroughbred, part draft horse—something that becomes a key element in the story’s development. 

Alas, young Albert Narracott is broken-hearted when the horse, Joey, is pressed into cavalry duty at the outset of the First World War. Albert finagles his way in the service by lying about his age and spends the war years trying to find his horse while managing to stay alive amidst that conflict’s trench warfare savagery. 

The plot here weirdly resembles that of a popular post WWII American film, “Gallant Bess” (1946) which itself was actually based on a real war horse story and possessed a vaguely similar plotline. (It’s also odd but probably coincidental that the owner of TV’s Flicka was a boy named Joey.) Strange how this stuff goes around

In any event, the staged version of “War Horse,” penned by English playwright Nick Stafford, immediately confronted the author with a major obstacle that the movie never had to deal with: how do you get a bunch of horses and WWI battles onstage?

Dealing with the battle scenes was easy enough. This production’s sonic and lighting special effects are astonishingly visceral and realistic. No problem there. 

As for the horses? They’re impersonated in this production, with amazing realism, via giant, horse-size puppets, operated with mesmerizing, realistic precision by members of South Africa’s Handspring puppet company which also designed the various horses—not to mention a few carrion crows, a zany, aggressive goose and a distant flock of birds. 

Joey and his fellow equine actors were each operated by a team of puppeteers, each controlling various aspects of each horse, including each virtual animal’s marvelously expressive face and ears. The puppeteers were dressed in compatible colors as suited each horse. While the team of operators was usually easily visible—no attempt at concealment here—the horse-puppets themselves became so unbelievably alive that one gradually forgot the operators were even there. 

The content of “War Horse” was actually a mixed bag. Its human characters, Albert perhaps excepted, were largely two-dimensional types, stock characters really, ranging from Albert’s alcoholic dreamer dad to his rich and evil uncle (who probably worked for an ancestor of Bain Capital) to a jingoistic British officer. Little to see here. 

While this is not a musical, but a play with music, “War Horse’s” score, composed by Adrian Sutton adds little, is typical of the electronic noisiness that’s so recently been replacing most live musicians in traveling productions, at least. Veering between heavy metal and sound effects, Sutton’s score is effective in the battle scenes but dull and annoying in most other contexts. 

Additionally, brief folk-style tunes by John Tams, sung by a roving troubadour at various intervals, serve to fill gaps in the narrative and keep things moving along at a relatively brisk pace, save for some overly philosophical moments in the show’s second stanza.

And yet, in spite of all its obvious faults as a stage drama, this production of “War Horse” proved surprisingly compelling nonetheless. Its secret was easy to see—those unbelievable puppet-horses and associated creatures. It’s the horses, not the people, who stand at the center of this drama. And via the magic of the puppeteers, these giant contraptions suddenly take on a brilliant life of their own.

These animated horses proved so compelling that one forgot the actors—along their annoyingly unintelligible variety of British accents, made far worse by poor miking. 

The horses brought this show to life. And that was, in the end, entirely appropriate. After all both Gallant Bess and Joey’s Flicka were the title characters in their own respective horse dramas. And all these horse-centric shows seem to carry forward a curious metaphor common to nearly all animal movies ranging from the Tarzan series (Cheetah, of course), to the Disney classic, “Old Yeller,” to TV’s “Flipper,” “Rin-Tin-Tin,” “Lassie,” and beyond. We see in each of these animals what seem to be the purest and most authentic of “human” emotions, particularly love and loyalty.

These sentimental animal tales, in short, use animals to serve as a metaphor for the ideal expression of the noblest of human feelings. We are supposed, one would guess, to ponder on this, look inside ourselves, and see if we might not be able to do a little better job in these areas than we do. 

Trite this may seem to today’s jaded sophisticates. But animal-based morality tales like “War Horse” continue to draw enthusiastic crowds wherever they appear, proving that this kind of quasi-religious message still appeals to those whose minds and hearts remain open to the message. We’re all looking for something better in life. Maybe our animal friends, in their own, uncomplicated way, can show us how to find it.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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