Review of "War Horse" at Proctors
by Katie Beltramo
Winner of five 2011 Tony Awards® and popularlized by the movie of the same name, "War Horse" is an atmospheric, poignant drama playing at Proctors from January 15-19, 2014. "War Horse" is best known for its title character, a horse named Joey who is portrayed by a life-sized puppet operated by three people.
Joey himself, first as a foal and then as a full-grown horse, is the centerpiece of the show, and the puppetry is mesmerizing. With ear twitches, shuddering breaths, canters, and flicking tail, Joey has personality and stage presence. Theater-goers are caught between analyzing how a puppeteer is creating the movement and forgetting that the horse isn't actually alive. Along with Joey, there are Joey's wartime horse companion, Topthorn, and a charming and comical goose, along with several other horse and bird puppets. Families who are particularly interested in puppetry will appreciate more information on the War Horse website or via a graphic created by the Washington Post that's reproduced in the hallway (walk almost to the State Street doors and look left if you're looking for something to do during intermission).
Along with the fauna, our kids loved Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox), Joey's human companion, and watching him play with his horse. My nine-year-old was a huge fan of the kind-hearted German Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May) as well (she literally leaned over and whispered, "I love him!") at some point. There are also humorous moments throughout the story, which helps lighten the mood of a production that would otherwise be quite dark.
Both the theater production and the movie are based on a children's novel. War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, is recommended for upper elementary to middle school-aged children. The plot is a boy-meets-horse tale set amid the horrors of World War I. The theater production is recommended for children ages ten and up, and that seems about right. There are only a few instances of bad language (less, surely, than called for in the trenches), no sex, and no actual gore. But there's plenty of violence, to horses and humans, and a substantial portion of the wartime action is really quite grim. The production incorporates smoke, loud noises, gun shots, and bright flashes to portray battle, so if you've got a child who won't like to be startled, this isn't your show.
My 11-year-old had her hands over her ears for roughly half the production, but she gushed that she loved the play, and when I asked about a moment that I thought was particularly wrenching, when a character was literally blown off Joey and into oblivion, she clearly wasn't traumatized: "That was so cool how they did that." Our children had watched the movie version, and I think that the stress level was about equal. We did appreciate that one character that the girls loved met a better fate on stage than on screen and overall, it was unanimous: we liked the stage version over the movie.
I'd reminded my kids ahead of time that, unlike many shows we see, "War Horse" isn't a musical, so I was surprised to find so much music in the show. There are classical pieces as well as tunes that sound like traditional folk music; all are original music created for the score. Sung by John Milosich and played by Spiff Wiegand, the music is an often understated but lovely complement to the plot.
The set design, too, is understated. The stage's backdrop looks like a torn sketchbook page that offers up dates and times to carry us through the story as well as impressions of Albert's farmhouse, rows of troops, and at one point, spots of crimson morphing into poppies. Onstage, actors often act as puppeteers with the set pieces themselves, appearing to lean against fences that they're actually holding up or making the barbed wire of the trenches seem downright predatory.
If you are planning to take your family to see "War Horse" and they're not already familiar with the story, a brief explanation that World War I was when warfare shifted from old-fashioned weapons and the cavalry to trenches, barbed wire, and modern machine weapons will be enough for children to follow along. The "War Horse" website has a resource pack that includes a plot synopsis, a "who's who" of characters, and more detailed historical background information, so it's quite helpful for getting the most out of your trip to the theater.
We loved "War Horse." There are plenty of themes to talk about with the family, like courage and cowardice, loyalty, and the various characters' choices about participating in the war. Younger children could be bored or upset by the fighting, and at 2 hours, 40 minutes (or possibly a bit longer), it's a long show for them. But those with the stamina to make it through a war won't be disappointed by the ending. The plot is simple enough for younger viewers, even if additional cultural and historical references that adults will get will fly over their heads. But beyond the plot, the production itself is an amazing in its creativity, ingenuity, and imagination, even if you're not a huge fan of puppets or horses. And if you are, it's a must-see.
"War Horse" runs about 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission. Tickets run $20 to $95 and are available online.
Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg provided by Proctors.