As inspiration for a children’s book, the cataclysmic events of World War I might seem an unlikely source.
But by the early 1980s, the scars of the conflict had faded enough to invite a new wave of contemplation from European artists and writers eager to instill the lessons of the war in a new generation. Among them was the British novelist Michael Morpurgo, who turned his considerable imagination to that painful period in his nation’s history and produced the 1982 book “War Horse.” The novel, a hopeful story about a boy and his horse – or, perhaps more accurately, a horse and his boy – quickly caught on among young adults in Britain.
The often harrowing story, told from the perspective of a horse that experiences the ravages of the war from both sides, became a major stage production in 2007 at London’s National Theatre. Like the novel before it, the puppet-driven show became an instant hit in Britain and soon spawned productions around the world, one of which comes galloping into Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for a six-day run. (A 2011 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg, grew out of the stage production.)
The show is not a musical – a rarity for the Shea’s Broadway subscription series – but a play with incidental music that its producers have taken to vaguely labeling as “a theatrical event.” The production is powered as much by its human cast as by its innovative puppet designs, which have drawn acclaim from crowds and critics since the production’s London debut.
The meticulously choreographed puppetry in the show, said North American tour associate director Sarna Lapine, has been instrumental in capturing the imaginations of audience members. It was designed by the South Africa-based company Handspring, founded by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick.
“One of the greatest accomplishments is that you’re asking three different individuals to play one sentient being,” Lapine said, referring to the trio of actors who operate the adult version of Joey, the horse at the center of the story. “The level of communication, connection, teamwork and artistry involved in those three people becoming one is so alive and subtle and beautiful ... The minute you see the ear-flick or the horse move across the stage, it’s the concentration and focus and sheer artistry of three individuals becoming one that I think creates that kind of magic immediately.”
The idea of putting up a major stage production based on a story told from the perspective of a horse seemed an unlikely prospect from the beginning. Morpurgo, according to several reports, was vocally skeptical about the potential to translate his story from page to stage. But in the end, Morpurgo wrote in The Guardian, the creative team of “War Horse” pulled it off.
“One of the things that strikes me as being really special about the book is that it’s from the point of view of the horse, and I think as a writer, what you can accomplish in literature in terms of that point of view might seem very daunting to translate theatrically,” Lapine said. Even so, she added, “The translation worked beautifully because you end up having such great compassion for the horse and his journey ... And I think the audience just falls in love with these horses.”
In association with Shea’s, the Buffalo History Museum will host a “Veterans Appreciation and War History Day” from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Several war-themed exhibitions will be on view, including a one-day pop up show on World War I drawn from the museum’s collection. The museum also is hosting two exhibitions on the War of 1812: “By Fire & Sword: War in the Niagara Theatre 1812-1814” and “Star Spangled Nation,” featuring paintings of War of 1812 scenes by contemporary artists.
What: “War Horse”
When: Tuesday through Nov. 17
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $32.50 to $72.50
Info: 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.