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War Horse

This harshly beautiful British play about a boy's love for his horse is one of the most moving theatrical experiences in recent memory.

By New York City
Seth Numrich and "Joey" in War Horse
(© Paul Kolnik)
Seth Numrich and "Joey" in War Horse
(© Paul Kolnik)
Anyone who loves inventive theater is urged to gallop at high speed to Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre to see War Horse, which proves to be one of the most moving events of this or any year in recent memory. This harshly beautiful spectacle, which first premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2007, offers some of the most astonishing puppetry ever put on a stage, which is only one of the elements that may bring tears to your eyes.

Granted, it may be necessary to warn some potential ticket buyers that War Horse, which has been adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel, occasionally crosses the line from crisp to sentimental. But the production, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris with dignity, also serves up a fierce awareness of the realities of war.

The piece follows teenaged Albert Narracott (the earnest, likable Seth Numrich), as he follows his horse, Joey, into World War I battle after his alcoholic, greedy father Ted (Boris McGiver, perhaps overacting more than necessary) sells the horse into cavalry duty for 100 pounds. While Albert is temporarily mollified by his tough-minded mother, Rose (a stern Alyssa Bresnahan), Albert eventually enlists in the British Army in order to find Joey. Whether he does won't be revealed here, but his search through the several countries is interwoven with what transpires for Joey.

As Albert fights from the trenches alongside buddy David (the gallant David Pegram), Joey is initially in the charge of stalwart Lieutenant James Nicholls (a regal Stephen Plunkett). He is later cared for by the deserting German officer Hauptmann Friedrich Muller (a sympathetic Peter Hermann), whose love for the equine species is as strong as Albert's.

The production gorgeously calls for an impressive array of theater arts, beginning with Rae Smith's stark sets, costumes, and drawings. It also receives notable creative work from lighting designer Paule Constable, sound designer Christopher Shutt, movement director Toby Sedgwick, and project designer 59 Productions, among others.

Last, but certainly not least, kudos must go to puppet designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones and the Handspring Puppet Company, as well as the various on-stage "puppeteers," who bring Joey and a variety of other horses to amazing life.

Whereas War Horse may have deeper meaning in Great Britain for its reminder about the loss of a generation's young men, it surely has wider implications. As Joey rears up when menacingly approached by a stylized tank, the devastating image is a metaphor for the end of the old, pre-1914 beliefs and the beginning of a world in which industrialization and technology have acquired the advancing ability to destroy civilization and the planet. For this sequence alone, War Horse is worth the price of admission.


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