War Horse has come galloping back to South Florida for a way-too-brief run at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. After Sunday evening’s final performance, it will be off and running to yet another city.
Anyone who caught the National Theatre of Great Britain’s visually stunning, moving production last spring at the Broward Center already knows that the touring War Horse is a treasure. The folks at the National, in concert with Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, know how to conjure theatrical magic in a way that plenty of calculatedly formulaic, wildly expensive Broadway productions do not.
Based on British author Michael Morpurgo’s novel for young readers, War Horse is hardly a show aimed only at kids. Presented in a deceptively simple folk art style, the play resonates on different levels with audiences of all ages (though little ones would likely find it loud and frightening).
Playwright Nick Stafford’s adaptation, with original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris staged for the tour by Bijan Sheibani, depicts the horrors of World War I battlefields in such an emotionally wrenching way that audiences gasp at the thunderous sound of an exploding bomb or wince at the sight of a beloved horse with its legs entangled in barbed wire.
Not to take anything away from the dozens of talented humans involved in bringing War Horse to life, the extraordinary stars of the show are the life-sized horse “puppets,” sculptural marvels by Kohler and Jones. Inanimate without the humans who manipulate them, the regal horses Joey and Topthorn are so quickly and completely brought to life by actor-puppeteers that you forget you’re watching creatures crafted from cane, fabric, aluminum and glass. Their suffering and reactions to danger feel palpably, distressingly real.
Though the story of War Horse focuses on the human-animal bond between 16-year-old Devon farm lad Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox) and the half-thoroughbred Joey, the play also explores familial betrayal. Albert’s father Ted (Gene Gillette) is an angry alcoholic, a man so jealous of his brother Arthur (Chad Jennings) that he risks the family farm to beat Arthur in a bidding war for Joey. Ted also makes and breaks promises to Albert, actions that send Joey and later Albert off to combat — and, quite possibly, death — in France.
The company at the Arsht is a fine one, with a strong performance by Cox as the loving, loyal Albert and an appropriately valiant one by Brendan Murray as Lt. James Nicholls, the officer who promises a heartbroken Albert that he’ll watch over Joey.
In 2011, Steven Spielberg turned War Horse into a lavish, realistic movie. What is now onstage at the Arsht requires the imaginative participation of the audience, as a few horse puppets and some artful actors stand in for the millions who perished during World War I. Simpler? Yes. But the emotional payoff is far greater.