Much has been made of the puppetry wizards who bring the eponymous heroes of “War Horse,” a horse named Joey and his cavalry buddy Topthorn, to life. The life-sized horse puppets created by the Tony Award-winning Handspring Puppet Company are certainly impressive, but the beating heart behind the acclaimed play is the strong relationship between Joey and his owner Albert, who enlists in the British Army in an attempt to rescue Joey from the unspeakable terrors of World War I.
Bolstered by an effective “war is hell” message and a strong theme of respect and admiration for equine partners, “War Horse” is a genuinely thrilling and touching portrayal of pure love in a time of horror and crisis.
The touring production of Broadway’s “War Horse” opened at the Kentucky Center last night. The drama, which is the only non-musical offering of the Broadway in Louisville season, runs through Sunday.
No-good tenant farmer Ted Narracott (Gene Gillette) buys a colt at auction at a price he can’t afford in order to spite his more successful brother. The horse is a majestic hunter, not a ploughhorse, and so of little use on a farm. He gives the colt to his teenage son Albert (played on opening night by Michael Wyatt Cox, a former acting apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville), who christens him Joey, to train and care for until he reaches maturity and can be sold. Albert and Joey form a solid bond, and though they make it through one trial by fire that should solidify Joey’s place on the farm, when World War I breaks out, Ted sells the horse to the British cavalry over Albert’s protests. Joey is sent to the French front, where he carries an officer into battle alongside Topthorn, another beautiful horse.
It takes three puppeteers to move one horse around the stage, and between the mechanical ingenuity of the puppets and the precise teamwork and acting of the puppeteer teams, Joey feels like a real character in the play, with as full a range of motion and emotion as any real horse, not just another special effect. The puppeteers are soon forgotten as the horse takes on a life on stage of his own.
Albert, despondent over Joey’s absence, soon follows. He begins his time in the army with optimism, believing he will be reunited with his horse and come home well and good. But as the years stretch on and Albert is exposed to more of the horrors of war, his hope fades. Cox’s performance is strong and seamless as he carries Albert from an innocent boy to a young man sobered by battle.
Meanwhile, Joey and Topthorn end up across enemy lines working for the Germans under the care of Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May), who cares for the horses as an act of redemption and spiritual self-preservation. May’s transformation from military man to independent rebel who tries to safeguard his remaining humanity is similarly effective. His strong relationship with Joey and Topthorn, whom he is determined to help survive the war, mirrors Albert’s, and so the drama avoids painting the Germans as unilateral villains. There are victims and heroes on both sides.
This elegaic tone is carried throughout by old hymns and folk songs performed by Kentucky native (and former Louisvillian, and Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts alumnus) Spiff Wiegand on accordion and vocalist John Milosich, whose clear tenor is shot through with melancholy.
The play is adapted from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, and while there are a handful of particularly tragic battlefield scenes that might frighten small children, “War Horse,” despite its mature themes, is appropriate for older elementary students on up. Much of the violence of war is suggested through careful lighting, sound and set design, but the effect is nevertheless harrowing in parts.