Sometimes a horse is not just a horse.
Of course, if you’re talking about the equine protagonist of “War Horse,” the absorbing puppet-driven play that opened Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, it can be a symbol of compassion, an unlikely agent of peace and a hulking, heaving reminder of the strength and grace to which humans can aspire.
The play, based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel of the same name, saddles its central character with a great deal of meaning and responsibility. It opens on a horse auction in Devon, England, in 1912, as two town braggarts bid over a spirited young foal. The winner, a town drunkard with a teenage son named Albert, pays an outrageous sum for the horse, Joey, who grows up to become Albert’s closest friend and companion.
The unspoken bond between Joey and Albert is ripped to tatters at the outset of World War I, when his father sells the horse into the war for 100 pounds. Albert follows suit, and we watch as he and Joey set out on separate slogs, grim and monochromatic, through the muddy trenches and battlefields of France.
If the production has any flaw, it is that it paints a moral and visual picture of World War I in stark shades designed for the eyes of adolescents rather than adults. But because of the production’s visually stunning design, it holds the reins firmly over theatergoers imaginations from the very first moment, and we happily clip-clop along with the cast to the final bows.
A great deal of ink has been spilled over the production’s innovative puppetry, so thoughtfully designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones and confidently executed by more than a dozen cast members. Any fears that the puppetry might turn out to be a graceful gimmick are put almost immediately to rest in an early scene between Albert and Joey, in which they slowly inch toward one another like kindergartners on the first day of class. The emotion pouring out of the horse from then on is so clear that the puppeteers vanish and our belief is easily suspended – no CGI required.
This is not, like so many recent productions that have flickered dimly across the Shea’s stage like the light from a dying film projector, an attempt to reproduce the cinematic experience on the stage. It’s a play that knows very well its place in the entertainment spectrum and embraces its theatrical nature.
The first case in point is the acting, which ranges from good to great. The rough edges of young actors are inevitably smoothed by song and dance numbers, but with no such theatrical sandpaper available, the producers of “War Horse” have insisted upon talent.
This pays off, especially in the case of Michael Wyatt Cox, whose portrayal of Albert paints just the right picture of this quietly earnest boy gradually gathering confidence as he heads into the young century’s greatest conflict. Maria Elena Ramirez, as Albert’s mother, provides an ideal balance of tough love and comic relief. And Andrew May’s touching performance of the German captain Freidrich, who attempts in the war’s futile dying days to defect from his company along with Joey and another horse, is beyond convincing.
“War Horse,” with its graceful embrace of puppetry and its insistence on human counterparts that are just as impressive, is a celebration of theater’s potential. It’s a thoroughbred success.