‘War Horse’ in Houston

28 May

War Horse 5

By JOHN DeMERS

How is it possible, you will ask yourself walking out of the Hobby Center, that you’ve just watched a play about the dark, dreary and impoverished English countryside giving way to the horrific trench warfare of World War I – and it still managed to be the most visually beautiful piece of theater you’ve ever seen.

The self-answer to your self-question has everything to do with the National Theatre of Great Britain’s evocative, poetic rendering of War Horse, a book that has also become a popular film by no less than Stephen Spielberg. Having now experienced the current touring production at the Hobby Center, I’m tempted to believe this story of “a boy and his horse” was destined for the stage all along. Then again, that took some doing.

Foremost, there’s the little matter of the horse. A showbiz axiom is to never work with children or animals, and in anything titled War Horse, it seems somebody’s going to have to. The single most magical and unforgettable decision made by the production team working to stage Michael Morpurgo’s novel was inviting the Handspring Puppet Company to create the horse named Joey and his equine pals. More than any similar stage illusion I’ve ever seen, including the clever-enough animals in The Lion King, these horses manage to be so realistic that we “pay no attention” to the men  walking them around yet also so powerful and lyrical, all mane and tail and muscle, that they become a kind of visual poetry.

The story takes a while to get going: slow-witted country man buys horse to best his estranged brother at a village auction, gives said horse to his teenaged son (who shows a special skill at training the animal) but then accepts an offer to sell the horse to the British Army heading off to fight the Kaiser in Belgium and France. Fearing for his best friend’s life, the teenager will eventually enlist in the infantry and go off to find him amid the carnage.

Two major components join the puppets in creating indelible moments of beauty. One is the simple set formed and reformed around projections on what looks like a violent gash across the stage’s backdrop. Many scenes – rustic etchings mostly, occasionally giving us a time cue from 1912 to 1918 – merely establish place. Still, the projections truly earn their keep when combat kicks in and they create the motion of a ground attack, the ear-splitting violence of an artillery bombardment and the quick suffusions of blood that are the too-casual result of all such military misadventures. At times, the stage fills and trembles with such a “light show” that Jefferson Airplane would feel at home performing “White Rabbit.”

The final poetic component of War Horse is music. Yes, this is that oddity at the Hobby Center: a play rather than a musical. But it does come packaged with a kind of Greek chorus – ranging from one guy up to most of the cast – walking through the action (unharmed) and dazzling us with a keening, Celtic-sounding refrain that supplies the show’s major themes of suffering, courage and sacrifice.  Taken together and mingled with a master’s touch, these three elements, each worth enjoying on its own, become a sustained piece of remarkable theater.

War Horse 10

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