Theater Review: WAR HORSE (National Tour)

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by Zach Zimmerman on December 21, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


War Horse is all about Joey, a 120 lb. puppet made of bent and stained cane and animated by three puppeteers. Their movements become the breathing of the horse; their voices become his neighs, whether they are pleasure or pain. Towering at 8 feet tall and just under 10 feet long, Joey is the largest character in this World War I story, decorated with five 2011 Tony Awards including Best Play, and currently galloping at the Cadillac Palace and across the globe in sold-out touring productions.

Zach Zimmerman's Stage and Cinema review of WAR HORSE

What is it about this show that makes it resonant abroad and domestically, even inspiring the film by Steven Spielberg? The human fascination with horses is palpable in contemporary plays such as War Horse and Equus, but the horse’s allure reaches much further into the past where early depictions of horses appeared on cave walls in Europe during the Pleistocene period (which, for non-archaeologists, started a solid 2.5 million years ago). The horse’s staying power is intimately connected to its beauty, majesty, and strength; even though most of us no longer rely on them to transport and sustain us, we still measure our automobile’s strength in horsepower.

Zach Zimmerman's Stage and Cinema review of WAR HORSE

But beyond our underlying love of horses, War Horse also taps into a love of spectacle and theatricality. To bring a horse accurately and artfully onto a stage and into the room with us is a feat that captures our attention. The Handspring Puppet Company, based in Capetown, South Africa, is responsible for the puppetry in War Horse: The majestic adult Joey, the adorable young Joey, and other animals from flying birds to a very funny goose, which almost steals the show. However, this isn’t a light-hearted tale of Old MacDonald’s Farm with puppets. Tanks, barbed wire, and corpses are also given the puppet treatment.

Zach Zimmerman's Stage and Cinema review of WAR HORSE

Set at the start of the First World War, War Horse details the carnage that tore a world apart, when sons were separated from their families and horses separated from their human companions. The young and shy Albert first encounters the horse after his alcoholic father wins him in an auction/pissing contestant. Called a coward by townsfolk and his family alike, the drunk father is also responsible for ripping the boy from his horse when it is sold to the military to fund dad’s gambling addiction. The story then, like Albert and his Joey, splits as we follow the horse’s plight and Albert’s quest to regain him.

Zach Zimmerman's Stage and Cinema review of WAR HORSE

Fog covers the stage throughout, while a short Irishman sings beautiful ballads as the story progresses. A ripped strip of parchment hangs above the stage, hiding lights which create the dim scenes of war, and bearing projected images to show time passing, lives being lost, and tomorrows becoming todays. War Horse is certainly a visual feast, but it did leave me emotionally hungry.

Zach Zimmerman's Stage and Cinema review of WAR HORSE

photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

War Horse
North American Tour
National Theatre
reviewed in Chicago; ends on January 5, 2013
for tickets, call ­phone or visit Broadway in Chicago
tour continues through July, 2014
for dates and cities, visit War Horse

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