Every time I go to a new production, I hope that it will be an exhilarating, indescribable experience. Many times, I am exhilarated. Many times, the experience is indescribable (about 50-50, good-bad). But it is ever so rare that a theatrical experience leaves me breathless, spent emotionally, and a somehow changed human being from the one I was before the house lights dimmed and a brand new world of human drama unfolded before me. Until this past Saturday, I could count only four such times in more than a quarter century of theatre going. The fifth, War Horse, leaves me now, days later, shaking and teary even as I type this, simply at the memory of the event.
Much has been made of the life-size and life-like horse puppets so stunningly created by The Handspring Puppet Company, and every bit of the praise they have received is warranted. Pictures simply do not do them justice. They have elevated stage puppetry to heights unseen since the debut of The Lion King. Visually, they amaze, amuse and awe. But perhaps most awesome of all is that once you get used to the way the puppets are manipulated - by three or four puppeteers per "horse" - slowly but surely your mind erases their presence and you start to believe that these are living, breathing beasts, with as much personality and emotional conflict as any of the humans on stage. Better yet, you stop thinking of them as puppets and go along for the ride as it were. And for as much accolade, again all deserved, that the puppetry has received, it speaks volumes for the whole production that they are only a part of the entire glorious experience.
Set in Europe during World War I, the play is not so much about the horse and the boy who lovingly and naively follows him into battle, as it is about war itself. Here we have the ultimate showdown - animal versus machine - in a war that would forever change the way wars are fought. One side brings the ultimate weapon, a well-trained hand-to-hand combat cavalry; the other brings the new ultimate, machine guns and tanks, not to mention tear gas, trench warfare and the first air support. It is the pinnacle of the battle between old and new. And the show depicts these events with frightening clarity and sweeping, breathtaking theatricality. It is without embarrassment that I confide that I wept openly as horses got tangled in barbed wire, soldiers and their mounts were slain by artillery and gigantic tanks. I was not alone in weeping for what was lost, but also for the sheer magnitude of the bad that mankind can do to itself. We are our own worst enemy, and for that I cried like a baby.
It is a rare thing to see war depicted, though, from both sides of the battlefield. And it is humbling and embarrassing to think that every single time we are thrust into another global conflict, neither side ever stops to think about the lives at stake or how the people who are actually doing the fighting feel about whatever the battle is about - if they even know. In War Horse, all of the usual platitudes are used to justify fighting - for the honor of the king, to help our neighbors, and to stave off the enemy from taking away our land and rights. But what it all really boils down to is quite simple: we fight for causes we do not understand, for leaders who tell us what to do but not why, and that no one on the battlefield wants to die, cause or no cause. Rarely, though, does any medium portray those parallels of emotion and purpose equally for both sides. Act one sets up the English side of the war, while act two spends the majority of its time being told from the German side. It is shameful that it should come as any measure of surprise that the Englishmen and the Germans both hate the war as much as they don't hate the warriors fighting it. In an absolutely stunningly staged scene in act two, we see two opposing trenches at once, with "no man's land" in between. Humanity wins out over barbarism as both sides come together to perform a rescue that will forever change the lives of the men in both trenches.
No point of view is left unexamined, even the innocent casualties of war - women and children thrust into battle simply because their home is in the way. A particularly moving scene takes place between a French woman, her daughter, Emilie, and a German soldier who must commandeer their farm for a triage center (Cat Walleck, Madeleine Rose Yen and Peter Hermann, respectively). Often these types of scenes involve the predetermined hero, not the bad guy Germans, but this play forces one to see things from the other side frequently and relentlessly. Watching the German try to justify and apologize to the mother, and later try to restore a sense of hope in the child is moving enough, but ultimately watching that same child bravely face many soldiers with guns in defense of a man who should be her enemy is among the most moving moments of my theatre-going life.
It is that same extremity of situation that propels the unlikely central story of a boy, his horse, and a several years long journey across a war-torn continent in pursuit of that horse. The sheer magnitude of World War I and the overwhelming statistics of mortality amongst men and beasts make the likelihood of the boy and horse reuniting seem beyond impossible. But just as the reality of this tale threatens to bog you down emotionally, you can't help but root for the impossible to happen, anyway. Whether the impossible does or does not happen, I won't spoil here. But I will say it is only in the very last seconds of the performance that you find out - this show is a heart pounding ride to the very end.
The puppets aside, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have directed this moving tale with such a simplicity and directness that one imagines it would be just as superb on an empty stage, everyone in black and with only mere suggestions of the title character. The lack of scenery only adds to the grand scale of a play that takes us all over Europe over several years. A few simple props, moody, effective lighting (by Paule Constable), and a large cast of characters who play roles on both sides, differentiated by their costumes (designed along with the setting and drawings that are projected by Rae Smith) all converge to tell this sweeping tale by focusing us on the people and not the spectacle. Don't get me wrong, it is a visual feast of theatrical tableau, ever changing perspective and all on a scale that makes Les Miserables look down-right dinky. But it never overwhelms the story.
A giant torn scrap of paper (so important to the story that to tell why would give away too much) dominates the vast black space of the stage. On it, we see the sketches drawn by an English Officer, as they evolve from pastoral countrysides to war ravaged towns as the years tick by. At times, the images are animated so as to give us a sense of how the still life actually was anything but. The projections by 59 Productions take the use of such a medium on the stage to an entirely new level of sophistication and, perhaps surprisingly, subtlety, for as enormous as this is, it grabs our attention, but doesn't overwhelm the story being told.
The cast of 35 is, to a person, superb. And while I'd love to single each and everyone out, I will concentrate on the main company or principal roles. At any given performance a team of 13 actors portray the horses, and a certain very funny goose. These people are no less than brilliant, so much do they bring to the whole piece. Liam Robinson and Kate Pfafel are the song man and woman, who provide songs which provide mood and add much to the change in time and place.
I mentioned previously the French mother and daughter, Emilie, played to perfection by Cat Walleck and Madeleine Rose Yen. Miss Yen's performance, I think, will haunt me for years; such hysterical pleading and such honest emotion are so rarely successfully portrayed by adult actors, let alone such a very young lady. As the British lieutenant who brings Joey (the war horse of the title) into the war, Stephen Plunkett, delivers a sharp performance that walks the line between soldier and caring human being. The same can be said for his German counterpart, as played by Peter Hermann. Mr. Hermann's performance is another marvel of economy punctuated by poignant gestures and rapid fire outbursts, as he tries to hide his identity and save his own life. David Pegram as Albert's best friend in the trenches offers several very welcomed light moments, making his demise all the more upsetting.
War is certainly hell in War Horse, but home life isn't all that much better, as sacrifices are continually made just for a community to survive. And no one in the central family disappoints, either. Matt Doyle (Spring Awakening, Bye Bye Birdie) gives his most mature performance to date as the cocky cousin of the hero of the story. He sees war as just another thing you do to keep the family name in good stead, a trait drilled into him by his father (gamely played by T. Ryder Smith), a former war hero, who never lets anyone forget that he is a veteran, as he limps around town wearing his medals and lording over everyone. When push comes to shove, however, the son doesn't exactly follow in the father's brave footsteps. The main family is as broken as the community in which it lives, as they struggle to make ends meet. The father, ruggedly played by Boris McGiver, is the one who stayed behind during the last war, an embarrassment to the family, even though his actions on the home front kept the family home in the family. The result of such public and familial scorn makes him turn to drink, and as the town drunk, little is expected and little is what he delivers. Alyssa Bresnahan, as the long-suffering wife and mother, bravely keeps things going, even as she has to be the one to beg the bank not to take her home away, all while she struggles to raise her son, Albert.
In what is a brilliant performance of epic scale, just like the play itself, Seth Numrich offers one of the finest portrayals I have ever seen on the Broadway stage. As Albert, he ages several years, from an awkward, out of place teen to a soldier of remarkable courage. His role is a complex one, as he must navigate a world war, a broken family and a love for his horse that in lesser hands would seem so improbable that the audience might just check out on his story. Instead, he brings dignity to a child role that is so rarely present in modern drama, and a strength of character that is clearly all due to internal control, so pitiful is his parental example. Mr. Numrich, like the play itself, unabashedly wears his heart on his sleeve for the love of his life, the horse Joey. Just remembering him yell plaintively in the darkness of many a lonely night, "Joey! Joey, boy, are you there?" brings me to tears. But, again like the play itself, it is the other events in his life - running away from home, the loss of comrades in arms, and his own near death experience - that build character and subtly change him from boy to man before our very eyes. His is a stunning, heartbreaking performance.
Really, it is that very co-existence of epic scale of war and the very human scale of life that rules every aspect of this once-in-a-lifetime production. Whether it is the staging of an entire mounted cavalry unit charging into barbed wire, or a quiet moment between a boy and his horse learning to trust each other, or a fully staged combat scene or a simpler moment between friends in the trenches, War Horse succeeds in a grand way. War is hell, indeed, but humanity and the spirit of loving something bigger than yourself, is divine.
(Photos by Paul Kolnik)
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