Sometimes all the elements of a show come together to form something truly special. Every aspect combines to take the piece beyond just a piece of theater and into the realm of art. (Yes I know theater is an art form but you know what I mean.) Well, "War Horse" currently playing at the Paramount is one of those shows, an entrancing and truly remarkable experience that needs to be seen.
Based on the novel from Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford, the play follows the life of Joey, a colt captured in Devon in 1912 and purchased at auction in a bidding war by the gruff Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) as part of a rivalry with his brother Arthur (Brian Keane). After paying entirely too much for the colt and putting the family farm's mortgage in danger, Ted puts the raising of the colt in the hands of his son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra). And thus begins story of friendship for the ages akin to that of "Old Yeller" or "Charlotte's Web". And since we've all been conditioned by those other stories to have a soft spot for animals and humans who are separated, it makes it all the more tear inducing when Joey is sold off to the military to be an officer's mount in France at the beginnings of World War I.
Yeah, you heard me; this is a major tearjerker. I think every program should come with a "War Horse Handkerchief" because you are gonna need one. But not just for the emotional impact the story has but from the sheer artistry and execution of the show itself. In case you've been living under a rock for the last few years and aren't aware, the physical manifestations of these huge horses (as well as other elements) on stage are done by some absolutely incredible and intricate puppetry. As you can see from the picture, the horses are just frameworks but really the entire set is frameworks so it fits. And the puppetry involved from Handspring Puppet Company is remarkable. After the initial introduction of the animals is done you forget you are looking at several men operating these puppets and invest yourself fully in the illusion of a huge horse on stage. They're just that good. And no, the animals never speak. This isn't one of those horrific "Air Bud" movies. But with the skill of these puppeteers, they certainly do communicate.
However the spectacle of the puppets is not the only reason to see the show. The performances of the actual humans are superb. Veenstra manages a kind of desperate sweetness that you cannot help but root for. Cerveris turns in an almost dangerous performance as Albert's unstable Father and is the perfect counterpart for the strong yet heartfelt Mother played by Angela Reed. Andrew May is both likable and heartbreaking as the German officer who finds he cannot condone his own actions anymore. And I must mention the gorgeous singing supplied by John Milosich as he would interject and punctuate scenes as an almost otherworldly chorus for the story.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg for this amazing piece of work. I can sit here all day and explain it to you or you can take my word and go get yourself tickets so you too can experience one of the most extraordinary pieces of theater that I've seen in awhile. It really is quite an experience.
"War Horse" performs at the Paramount Theatre through February 24th. For tickets or information visit the Seattle Theatre Group online at www.stgpresents.org.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg