Everyone loves a good horse story, it seems—even if they already know the plot. And War Horse is a great horse story, one virtually everyone in America knows from the beloved Steven Spielberg movie, and one that audiences around the country are reliving through the Broadway road-show theater production stabled at The Orpheum for the next ten days.
In the case of War Horse, however, the usual movie-to-stage transformation that has spawned so many popular Broadway shows—Mary Poppins, Hairspray, The Lion King, The Color Purple, etc.—has been reversed. War Horse was already a popular stage play before Spielberg got his hands on it, and what makes it so engaging—no matter how many times you may have seen the movie—is the ingenious stagecraft used to tell a tale that, at first glance, seems almost impossible to do in a theater. The main character is a horse, after all, and much of the story takes place in a war zone, with infantries full of tanks and soldiers. A parlor-room comedy it is not.
Indeed, much of what draws audiences to see War Horse is the fact that it is NOT a movie; it is a stage production that attempts, and largely succeeds, to pull off the seemingly impossible. War Horse is basically a three-hour magic trick. The methods it uses to create the magic are as old as theater itself (puppetry, lighting, sound effects, etc.), albeit updated to create a sophisticated-looking stage spectacle.
The main prop, of course, is Joey the horse, who is the creation of London’s Handspring Puppet Company, and perhaps the finest theatrical creature you’ll ever see. It’s not just that Joey is amazingly realistic, it’s that he’s amazingly realistic in a certain way—a way informed by the delicate intersection of art and imagination.
One can imagine all sorts of ways to create a realistic-looking animatronic horse, but Handspring makes no attempt whatsoever to hide the fact that Joey is a puppet. The three people that operate him—two inside and one to operate his head—are clearly visible at all times. You can even see the puppeteers inside him, because Joey is shaped by a steel exoskeleton with transparent fabric. The magic of puppetry, however, is that it excites the imagination in a way movies don’t—by suggesting a form or character and letting your brain do the rest. It doesn’t take long for Joey’s operators to drop away from one’s field of vision and for one’s imagination to start filling in the blanks, anthropomorphizing Joey until he is that special horse everyone wants to know. Much of the magic that makes Joey feel so real is extremely subtle, however. If you go to see War Horse, pay particular attention to Joey’s ears; they twitch and perk and move all the time, and are in many ways the key to what makes Joey such a special theatrical achievement.
The rest isn’t too bad, either—with many dramatic, slow-mo battle scenes punctuated by blasts of light and seat-rumbling explosions. But it’s Joey everyone comes to see. Everyone already knows the story, so the only surprise is how they’re going to tell it. There’s a reason War Horse won five Tony awards, including Best Play. And now, Twin Citians who are lucky enough to have tickets are finally finding out why.
War Horse continues at The Orpheum through June 23.