Saturday, March 19, 2011

War Horse: Indulge Your Inner Pre-Teen Self

Joey, the War Horse, with his owner, Albert
If I were 12 years old—or even if I could be more in touch with my inner 12-year-old self—I believe I would be enthralled with War Horse, now on view at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. 

Certainly there is much to be admired in this magnificent pageant of a show, presented with obvious love, pride, and skill by the National Theatre of Great Britain.   Central to its magnificence is the amazing work by the Handspring Puppet Company (design, fabrication and direction are credited to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones), which has found a way to bring life-size horses onto the stage and to give real personality to the “character” of Joey, the War Horse of the title.  Basil Twist and Julie Taymor, eat your hearts out!

There are 45 performers on hand to enact this staged version of the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, a popular and prolific author of children’s books.  (A film version, directed by Steven Spielberg, is also in the works.)

The production stints on nothing.  There are revolving turntables and lifts, video imagery and projections similar in style to those used so effectively in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Sunday in the Park With George a couple of years back, depictions of battles, a full-size military tank, fog machines, and live and recorded music to both underscore and heighten the action onstage. 

Given all that has gone into this production, I blush at my curmudgeonly take on the show, which is that whatever War Horse is, it is not a play—and I say this knowing that it is certain to be in strong contention for a Tony Award for best play. 

But first the plot, such as it is:  boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy and horse may or may not be reunited in the end.  (I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I would give away the ending). All of this is set against the backdrop of World War I, as seen through the eyes of Joey and his human companion, Albert (Seth Numrich).  Don’t go looking for any psychological drama in the manner of Equus; the plot is exactly as I have described it. 

And therein lies the problem.  There may be 45 in the cast, but no character seems to be anything more than a plot device.  Oh, I’ll confess to a drop of moisture in my eyes at one or two pivotal points, but watching War Horse is like watching the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall or Riverdance or some other extravaganza.  It may be theatrical, but it isn’t theater.  It may be dramatic, but it isn’t drama.  It may be well performed, but it isn’t acting, at least not in the sense of depicting fully realized characters or even of serving some grand theme.

War Horse, the show, is perhaps ideal for the same audience as War Horse the book—with the proviso that there are some potentially disturbing scenes of war and one or two uses of the “F” word.   So PG-13 rather than PG. 

I want to reiterate that everything is so well done that if you want to see War Horse just for the spectacle of it, by all means dig up your inner 12-year-old and indulge yourselves.

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