Something magical is happening at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where War Horse, the stark and thrilling drama is in performances. Based on Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book, for children, War Horse is a coming of age love story about a boy and his pet. It is also a brutal portrayal of the horrors of war and how they affect the animals used in battle.
Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and brought to New York from London, War Horse tells the story of Albert and Joey and the extraordinary lengths they go to for their friendship. Purchased by Albert’s father (Boris McGiver) in a drunken town auction, Joey is a half-thoroughbred horse who cannot help with any work on their farm. Albert (played by Seth Numrich in an excellent performance) tames him and teaches him to pull a plow. Albert’s mother (Alyssa Bresnahan, also excellent) recognizes that her son loves his pet, but even she may underestimate just how much. The scenes of Albert taming Joey are some of the most sweet and touching ones acted onstage this season.
Joey, as a colt and a full-grown horse, is powered by a team of talented puppeteers. Designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, from the Handspring Puppet Company, the horse is portrayed by a life-size puppet powered by up to three people. But the word puppet doesn’t seem to do Joey justice – without words or costumes, this horse is the most fully developed character onstage. What these puppeteers achieve is nothing short of remarkable. Joey’s personality – yes, he does have one – and the innocent friendship he develops with Albert – causes the audience to become so invested in him that vocal responses are spoken out loud when he is threatened during the pay.
And he is threatened because Albert’s father sells him to the World War I calvary, without Albert’s permission. Determined to find his horse, Albert enlists himself and the play takes a much darker turn in the second act. Battles are acted onstage, with little to no props, and the result is horrifyingly effective. Guns are fired, but it’s the barbed wire that seems to be the most frightening as they pose such a danger to the horses in battle. Peter Hermann plays a horse-loving soldier whose desire to escape battle and save his beloved animals prove to be just as dangerous as war itself.
With sets, costumes and drawings by Rae Smith and lighting by Paule Constable, the minimal staging of War Horse is surprisingly powerful. A screen that looks like an oversized, torn strip of paper depicts drawings by Smith that convey the changes in time and setting in a swift, but still subtle manner. This understated tone is consistently maintained throughout the show – a simple, powerful, tribute to past heroes and the sufferings they endured.