“War Horse” requires a commitment.
When you read “horse puppeteers,” the fact is, your brain might tell you, “I’m not going anywhere near a play with horse puppets.”
But the stellar cast and creative team go all out staging this emotional two-act play, based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and presented by Artist Series Feb. 18-23. The beautiful minimalism of this production delivers the simple story of a young man, Albert, leaving his British village to look for his horse Joey in the chaos of World War I.
Ultimately, the most important commitment must come from the audience, suspending disbelief on those horse puppeteers, two inside the adult horse Joey and one controlling his head.
The puppeteers controlling the title character — James Duncan, Adam Cunningham and Aaron Haskell — carry this production. They breathe life into “War Horse,” causing some theatergoers to tear up at the connection formed between Albert and Joey.
The intensity of the actors, particularly Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert, puts the spotlight clearly on Joey, not the puppeteers. The entire production hinges on it.
It must be said that for some, it’ll truly be too hard to look past the puppeteers. Those pondering taking a chance on “War Horse” for its eight-show run through Feb. 23 would be advised to watch videos of Joey first and judge for themselves.
A goose, controlled by Gregory Manley, proves to be a scene-stealer, injecting some much-needed humor.
But the production might very well lose some of its audience in the first 10 minutes when the foal Joey — not nearly as impressive — is up for auction. Albert’s father Ted bets the mortgage to win, and the drunk’s half-cocked decisions drive the plot throughout the first act.
The 120-pound Joey bursts in not a moment too soon and rather dramatically.
Joey is challenged to take to the plow, then goes off to war before Albert is old enough to join. Later, Albert enlists and the action shifts to France and the chaos of war.
Though Morpurgo’s work was a children’s novel, the play is a war story. Joey endures, though some of his riders do not.
Presented by the Handspring Puppet Company, the adult Joey was handmade by 14 people with a frame mostly constructed of cane, which was soaked, bent and stained. It’s truly a wonder, operated by the three puppeteers. And it’s not just Joey who's so amazing. At one point, six horses share the stage.
One complaint on opening night Feb. 18 came from theatergoers who had trouble hearing. Some dialogue seemed muffled, even from my seat in the fifth row, though I heard perfectly well the woman in the front row when she commented during intermission that even she couldn’t hear some lines.
Despite that shortcoming, “War Horse” is a wild ride through the chaos of World War I. Those who immerse themselves will find a story that grabs them.