by Margaret Mendel
With the Tony Awards upon us this Sunday we have the great treat of being able to enjoy a review of one of the Tony Award nominated shows thanks to KRL’s writer in New York. While only our New York readers will have the chance to see this show for now, hopefully many of us will be able to enjoy it sometime in the future and now we can enjoy the Tony Awards with just a bit more knowledge of one of the great plays that is nominated.
After only a four-month engagement at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, War Horse has been nominated for a Tony Award for best play. The play based on a children’s novel War Horse written by Michael Morpurgo was adapted for the stage by Nick Staffard in association with Handspring Puppet Company.
The story line for War Horse, is simple, a boy’s love for his horse. Though the tale is made more complex by the subplots with the threat of losing the family farm, rivalries between brothers, and war, it is the wizardry of the giant horse puppets that makes the time fly in this 2 hour and 40 minute play. The actors hold the play together, but it is the puppets, the giant manipulated beasts that gallop and prance so life like on the stage that kept me enthralled the entire time.
In the opening scene the audience meets a frisky half-Thoroughbred colt that is waiting to be auctioned off. Three puppeteers manipulate the colt with such liveliness, making the animal jump and run, that it is hard to believe that this puppet is not real and merely constructed of wood and metal. At the auction an inebriated farmer is goaded by a brother he has been feuding with for years into bidding on the pony. The farmer cannot contain his feelings of inferiority and spends every cent of the mortgage money on the horse. The farmer’s son, Albert, is put in charge of caring for the horse and names the animal, Joey.
It doesn’t take long for the boy and horse to develop a strong loving bond. The remainder of the story hangs simply on these plot points and when a year later the farmer sells the colt, now grown into a fine strong animal, to a cavalry regiment when World War I breaks out in Europe, Albert is heart sick. The boy joins the army in an attempt to find his horse and embarks on his own personal journey into manhood.
Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company and the creators of the astonishing puppets in War Horse, believe that the soul of the puppet lives in the palm of the hand of the puppeteer. I am convinced that they are right because after only a few minutes of watching this puppet, constructed of bent wood, metal brackets, hinges and the thinnest of fabric, as it galloped and pranced on the stage I believed that Joey was a real horse.
War is always brutal and it is during WWI that a primitive form of a machinegun makes its debut onto the battlefield. At one point the theater lights dim, the air turns smoky and the stage is filled with a monstrous killing machine while men and horses are trapped in the trenches or entangled in the miles of barbed wire strewn along the open fields. Black bird puppets, ominous creatures, fly onto the darkened battlefield and peck at the dead bodies of the soldiers and horses.
Between August 1914 and November 1918 during WWI with some two-dozen countries joining the conflict, an estimated 20 million people and eight million horses died. One million English horses were taken to France to be used by the British Army with only an estimated 62,000 retuning back to England.
When the play ended I stepped out of the theater, the night sky a deep velvety indigo, the magic of Joey still prancing around in my mind. A large pond sits just outside the exit door, the lights from the surrounding buildings reflecting on the blackened water. I turned, looked back through the large plate glass window of the theater and saw the giant poster of War Horse.
There was no movement, but I saw a glint in the eyes of the horse and I remember how startled I was when I first saw the light reflected in the glass eyes of Joey. The puppeteers had brought the horse to stand upright on its two hind legs, and then made the puppet crash back down onto the stage with a thunderous crack of the front hooves. It was then that the light caught in the puppet’s eyes and at that moment I could swear that Joey was alive, and that this puppet had become a breathing half-Thoroughbred and I believed for a second or two that Joey was looking directly at me.
War Horse is a powerful and spellbinding theater experience and very clearly a production that is worthy of being in contention for a Tony Award.
For a list of the other Tony Nominated shows and actors check out the KRL Tony Awards page. A revival of Born Yesterday is among those nominated and you can check out a review of a local production of the original play here at KRL as well. You still have a chance to see the show in Fresno as this weekend will be closing weekend.
On June 12, 2011 – Tony night – the fun begins even before the audience members take their seats. A live webcast begins at 6:00 p.m. at Tony Awards.com. Tune into CBS at 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT. For West Coast Fans: The telecast will be aired on time delay at 8:00 p.m. PT. KRL will be following the broadcast and Tweeting information throughout the evening so be sure and follow us @kingsriverlife.