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posted: 12/21/2012 5:00 AM

Superbly staged 'War Horse' stands tall in the saddle

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  • Soldiers (Grayson DeJesus riding black horse Topthorn and Michael Wyatt Cox riding Joey) do battle in the North American tour of "War Horse," which plays Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre through Saturday, Jan. 5.

      Soldiers (Grayson DeJesus riding black horse Topthorn and Michael Wyatt Cox riding Joey) do battle in the North American tour of "War Horse," which plays Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre through Saturday, Jan. 5.
    Courtesy of Brinkhoff/MOGENBURG

  • Albert (Andrew Veenstra) must train the family's horse, Joey (manipulated by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui), in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.

      Albert (Andrew Veenstra) must train the family's horse, Joey (manipulated by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui), in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.
    Courtesy of Brinkhoff/MOGENBURG

  • Albert (Andrew Veenstra) rides his family's horse, Joey (manipulated by John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger), in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.

      Albert (Andrew Veenstra) rides his family's horse, Joey (manipulated by John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger), in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.
    Courtesy of Brinkhoff/MOGENBURG

  • Joey, left, is forced to spar with Topthorn in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.

      Joey, left, is forced to spar with Topthorn in the North American tour of "War Horse," playing Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre now through Saturday, Jan. 5.
    Courtesy of Brinkhoff/MOGENBURG

  • Video: "War Horse" montage

 
 

It would be easy to guess why penny-pinching audiences might opt to skip the national tour of "War Horse," now playing at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Director Steven Spielberg's film version of "War Horse" was released just last year, racking up six Academy Award nominations, and book-loving kids will also likely find the original 1982 children's novel of the same name by British author Michael Murpurgo at local libraries.

But neither the novel nor the film holds a candle to the emotional resonance and pure theatrical magic of "War Horse" onstage. After all, it was the National Theatre of Great Britain's 2007 collaboration with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company that put "War Horse" firmly on the global cultural map -- inspiring Spielberg to make his film adaptation and shining a light on Murpurgo's lesser-known book.

"War Horse" is centered around Joey, first shown as a foal in 1912 in the southwestern English county of Devon. When presented at auction, Joey inspires a heated bidding war between two brothers with bad blood between them: Arthur (Brian Keane) and Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris). The sometimes violent drunkard Ted ultimately wins out, but the inflated price he pays threatens his family and farm with ruin.

Ted's teenage son Albert (Andrew Veenstra) steps up to train Joey. Albert clearly has a knack with horses, and he develops a special bond with Joey, who transforms before our eyes into a magnificent full-size thoroughbred in one of the production's most dazzling theatrical moments.

But the arrival of World War I severs the bond between boy and horse when Joey is sold off to the British cavalry. We then follow the experiences of Joey as he gets caught up in the horrors of modern warfare, and of Albert when he defies his parents and enlists with the single-minded hope of being reunited with his beloved horse.

If that play synopsis sounds a tad childish, remember Murpurgo's source material and the adolescent audience he originally intended to reach. But playwright Nick Stafford smartly adapts "War Horse" (which was originally presented entirely from the horse's perspective) to flesh out the people who encounter Joey and to gently poke jabs at Albert's overriding motivation for joining up while also treating it seriously.

Adroitly portraying how the horrors of war affect all sides of a conflict, "War Horse" can prod audiences ages 8 to 80 to tear up and feel for both its human and animal characters. Within this strong story framework, the stagecraft wizardry of puppets, production design and performers can truly touch audiences emotionally by following the exploits of an amazingly lifelike animal creation.

A trio of skilled puppeteers brings the major horse characters to life by operating in tandem as "head, heart and hind." Though you can see the puppeteers practically at all times, you soon forget them and instead focus on the puppets as magnificent living and breathing horses.

On tour, "War Horse" might feel a tad boxed-in on a proscenium stage when compared to the thrust-stage expanses of the New London Theatre in Britain and Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway. But tour director Bijan Sheibani, re-creating the Tony Award-winning original "War Horse" direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, still captures the epic scope of the show -- including a moment where Joey trots past the audience up and down a theater aisle.

"War Horse" demands a large and skilled cast, and this tour abounds with talent. From the onstage musicians who perform Celtic period-style songs by Adrian Sutton and John Tams to the teams of animal puppeteers (including a petulantly aggressive goose), "War Horse" is filled with dedicated performers. Among them are Andrew May as the German soldier Friedrich Muller, Lavita Shaurice as the French girl Emilie and Veenstra crucially as Albert. They all touch the heart.

With the Broadway production slated to close next month, now is the time for American audiences to catch this wonderful show on tour and in peak form. It may be awhile before a theatrically vivid production like "War Horse" gallops into Chicago again.

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