Reviewed by Jeanette Hamel
It was impossible to imagine how Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, War Horse, and Steven Spielberg’s feature film of the same, was ever going to translate to a live stage. PETA activists aside, live horses as main characters on a stage in a theater would be an impossible feat. When the fact that “horse puppets” was revealed as casted for these parts, it was also impossible to imagine how “puppets” could EVER be believable characters. Convinced of that, it was an amazing experience to be lulled into truly believing in Joey (young and adult) and Topthorn as living, breathing, and feeling “horses.”
War Horse, playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, is an “experiential experience” of a play. With an extremely austere set, the only visible scenery at the open is a large canvas of “hide” stretched across the stage. This “hide” becomes a very effective tool for presenting new scenes and historical background pieces with video and sketching of the period.
True to the familiar storyline based in pre World War I England, Joey is introduced as a young foal frolicking across the meadows with a carefree playfulness. His special relationship with the Andrew Veenstra’s young Albert Narracott begins with Albert admiring him from afar and continues into a solid friendship as Albert’s father buys the horse at auction which sets the emotional roller coaster of Joey and Albert’s connection and life together into motion.
War Horse is 1000% dependent on the incredible talent and skill of the Handspring Puppet Company and director Bijan Sheibani. The introduction of young Joey, puppeteered by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica begins the fantasy entanglement of audience and puppets…in spite of preconceived skepticism, young Joey captures the heart and emotions of all. From the very life-like movements of breathing, trotting and eating it becomes harder and harder to see puppeteers and an authentic “horse” takes their place. Adult Joey, puppeteered by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui completes the metamorphosis taking on “full grown” horse attributes of charging, galloping and portraying affection, apprehension, fear, and courage.
Joey, as a character and a puppet, dominates the storyline and the stage with a powerful and important presence. The historic background of early World War I transforms his idyllic farm setting and separates him from caregiver and master, Albert. Emotions are charged as the sad realities of the violence and cruelty are played out on stage. Masterful use of lighting and sound transform the stage into fascinating and authentic battlegrounds and war ravaged countrysides. While Joey serves on both sides of the fight, his undying loyalty to Albert is never questioned. The tragedies of war play out well and make the happy resolution very pleasing.
While Joey’s performance is spectacular, he is not the only puppet extraordinaire in War Horse. Topthorn, puppeteered by Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti and Aaron Haskell is Joey’s horse comrade brought together as the war begins. He, too, is a powerful and commanding force in the dramatic battle scenes. Coco (Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger) and Heine (Grayson DeJesus and Jason Loughlin) round out the “stable” of horses and accent the illusion that creates the audience affinity with Joey. The endearing comic relief brought by Goose (also puppeteered by Jon Hoche) made the puppet menagerie complete.
War Horse is a magical story of a boy and his horse separated by the heartbreak of war. It is also the story of courage and determination – of love and loyalty – and of the captivating skills and talents of Handspring Puppet Company. Touching, inspiring and enchantingly entertaining – highly recommended for all ages!
Based on novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
December 18, 2012 through January 5, 2013
For tickets call 312.977.1710 or visit BroadwayInChicago.com