'War Horse' production is a highly theatrical drama
Every once in a while a play comes along that restores belief in the future of live theater.
Such a play is touring version of the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of “War Horse” now at the Benedum Center through Sunday as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh.
Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, it's an imaginative, inventive, highly theatrical drama adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company.
Set in England and France in the days before and during World War I, it's a saga of the relationship between Albert, a young boy and a horse named Joey who find themselves separated by and entangled in the horrors of a barbaric war. When Albert's father sells Joey to the cavalry, the 16-year-old Albert enlists so he can recover Joey. The story follows their perilous and parallel journeys to survive.
Some know “War Horse” from Stephen Spielberg's 2011 film that shares its name and its story and may be tempted to skip the play on the theory that nothing on stage could live up to the full color, panoramic sweep and realism of a movie.
That would be your error.
Rae Smith's costumes, sets and drawings, Paule Constable's original lighting and Karen Spahn's later adaptations and the puppetry animals designed and fabricated by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company create a complete world by playing to the strengths of live theater.
Spare settings and pencil sketches projected above the actors heads suggest the fields of peacetime Devon and the explosions, cavalry charges, unexpected danger, menacing machinery and coils of barbed wire in ways that connect the audience by enlisting their imaginations to fill in the details.
Moments of artistry, humor and unexpected humanity relieve the tension.
Puppeteers in trios collaborate to bring life and spirit to Joey and his rival Topthorn. They may have Tyvek tails and bodies of cane and metal but the become real as you wince at their pain and confusion, watch them breathe and recognize their small, honest reactions to frustration, affection and distrust.
Nearly 30 perform onstage, many of them assuming multiple roles as Devon villagers, German and British soldiers and nurses.
Most notable are Andrew Veenstra's Albert who journeys from boy to man while never losing faith in his quest for Joey, Todd Ceveris as Albert's ne'er do well father Ted and Angela Reed as Albert's mother Rose.
While not a musical, the ensemble and Song Man John Milosich support transitions of time, place and mood with hauntingly beautiful songs that sound like hymns and folk song.
One caveat for parents: while the story was adapted from a children's novel, vivid war scenes and the horses' peril may be too vivid for younger children, particularly those who care deeply for horses or other animals.
For those who love a well told, theatrical saga, it's a journey not to be missed.
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.