Saturday, April 30, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 6: War is hell, but 'War Horse' is terrific

A scene from War Horse. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

By Hap Erstein‭

Avenue Q arrived on Broadway some eight years ago with its snarky,‭ ‬often off-color humor to claim that puppet shows are not necessarily mere kids‭’ ‬stuff.‭ ‬That heretical suggestion has now been confirmed forever by the emotionally charged‭ ‬War Horse,‭ ‬an epic tale of a young man and his trusty steed,‭ ‬set against the horrors of World War I.

A transfer from the National Theatre of Great Britain,‭ ‬it now resides at Lincoln Center’s vast Vivian Beaumont.‭ ‬This used to be considered a highly problematic playing space,‭ ‬but to see how beautifully a huge,‭ ‬yet intimate production like‭ ‬War Horse fits here‭ ‬--‭ ‬or‭ ‬South Pacific or‭ ‬The Coast of Utopia before it‭ ‬--‭ ‬one wonders how there could have ever been naysayers about the physical plant.

Anyway,‭ ‬War Horse is based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about‭ ‬Albert,‭ ‬the son of an alcoholic Devon farmer who falls in love with a chestnut-colored horse named Joey that his father purchases on a jealous whim.‭ ‬When Joey is sold into the‭ ‬cavalry to aid the war effort,‭ ‬Albert runs away from home and enlists‭ ‬in the army in an attempt to reunite with the semi-thoroughbred.

It is not a particularly complex or subtle story and the production is more narrative pageant than play,‭ ‬but the stagecraft of the life-sized puppets and a backdrop of animated hand-drawn projections make this one of the must-sees‭ ‬--‭ ‬you’ve never seen anything like it before‭ ‬--‭ ‬of this Broadway season.‭

The animals were created by the Handspring Puppet Company and they are awe-inspiring.‭ ‬Joey is manipulated by three people,‭ ‬visible at all times,‭ ‬either standing next to the horse or inside him.‭ ‬But the miracle of what Handspring hath wrought is that the humans virtually disappear as Joey comes to life,‭ ‬turning his head with such expression,‭ ‬flicking his tail or slogging through the mud of war-torn France.

And while it seems silly typing these words,‭ ‬another astonishing Handspring creation is an adorable goose puppet on wheels that is the sole comic relief of the‭ ‬2-hour-40-minute production.

Ultimately,‭ ‬War Horse is about the brutality and destruction of war,‭ ‬but if you are willing to stipulate from the start that war is rotten,‭ ‬you can concentrate instead on the alchemy of live theater.‭ ‬And puppetry.

‭ * * *

The only downside of my trip so far‭ ‬--‭ ‬OK,‭ ‬after my horrendous day of flying to get here and after the painfully bad‭ ‬People in the Picture‭ ‬--‭ ‬was a broken interview with Karole Armitage,‭ ‬the choreographer of‭ ‬Hair,‭ ‬who agreed to sit and talk with me about the show coming to the Kravis Center next season.‭ ‬So I schlepped down to the Joyce Theatre on‭ ‬19th Street,‭ ‬where her modern dance company is performing and waited for a half hour for her to show up,‭ ‬before I had to hurry uptown to see‭ ‬War Horse.‭

Karole,‭ ‬where were you‭? ‬Call me.

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