Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights for “War Horse,” the extraordinary stage adaptation of the Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, currently in a wondrous production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. And after seeing this staging, one fully understands its attraction for Mr. Spielberg – the play is cinematic theatre – portraying the ravages of war against the sentimentality of a story about a boy and his horse. Set in England and France just before and during the first World War, the story follows young Albert’s love-affair with a hunting horse that his father, Ted, bought at auction for an unheard-of price just to spite his brother with whom he has a life-long rivalry. With the outbreak of WWI, boy and horse are separated and, through near-epic story-telling we follow the “two lovers” in their quest to be reunited.
The story is simple, at times predictable, but always engaging. What makes “War Horse” so powerful is the perfect blending of all of the elements that make theatre unique. At the same time, the production has an oddly cinematic effect with short scenes spread out over a long period of time; every scene accompanied either by a lone live singer, a full chorus, or piped in musical underscoring, setting the emotional context for the action.
Central to the theatricality are the amazing life-size puppets created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company. Full-sized horses are operated with absolute fidelity to the movement of these animals by a band of puppet-masters. Young Albert’s mother is followed everywhere she goes by an animated goose whose life-like reality forces the audience to be oblivious to the period-dressed puppeteer controlling its every move. The interactions between these animals and their two-legged friends and masters are not the least bit artificial. Spielberg will probably use real horses, but he’ll be challenged to get as much real life emotion out of them as this production vests these majestic works of art (the audience applauds the entrance of the fully grown Joey, the equine object of young Albert’s affection – move over, Vanessa Redgrave).
The entire design of the show is marvelously unified. The sequences that show the passage of time and events are filled with animated black and white line drawings projected on a screen. The screen looks like a page from a drawing book from which the young Albert tears a picture of his precious horse to carry with him in his search for his companion. The straight-stick lines of the drawings are reflected on the design of the stage floor and eventually in the background of war-torn France. Atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable sets the mood but never calls attention to itself. Rae Smith’s costumes (and drawings) evoke the working-class station of the English characters and the desperation of troops caught in a war that appears to have no end. The original music and songs by Arian Sutton and John Tams, respectively, act as an almost Brechtian commentary on the action, never alienating the audience, but instead drawing the viewer into the characters and their circumstances.
Within all of this spectacle and theatrical ingenuity lays a touching and moving portrayal of real people dealing with real emotions during “the war to end all wars.” Even though the structure is epic and the characters are many, each character is given a remarkable amount of depth and definition in Nick Stafford’s adept adaptation. The acting company is uniformly excellent. Seth Numrich gives a fully dimensioned and powerful performance as Albert, starting as a rambunctious sixteen-year-old and growing into a man with deep feelings and fierce determination. Boris McGiver, as Albert’s irresponsible drunken father, skillfully avoids a stereotypical portrayal, allowing the audience to empathize, if not forgive him. The scripts give Alyssa Bresnaham, as Albert’s mother, Rose, very little beyond the outer trappings of a poor farm-wife; but she uses every word and look to tell the audience so much more of what makes Rose smell sweet underneath her stern exterior. Kate Pfaffl as the ballad singer haunts the action of the play and binds its disparate events. There are at least a dozen additional actors who deserve similar accolades from the pathetically affecting performance of the young-actor Madeline Rose Yen who evokes pity and horror as grown-up can, to the complex portrayal of a German officer turncoat-come-survivor by Peter Hermann.
My students in theatre classes used to ask me whether I could ever actually fully enjoy a play. They observed in me someone who was always analyzing, always taking the production and everyone of its elements apart. I would tell my students that when a play experience was less-than-satisfactory, I did sit in the audience picking apart the various elements. I jokingly explained, at least I had something interesting to do while the production droned on. But when a production works, I am like any other theatre goer, swept up in the experience, feeling and responding to each of those elements, not dissecting them. Like many in the audience, I cannot exactly explain why everything comes together so perfectly in these rare conglomerations of talent and material. Last week I saw a show, “Catch Me If You Can,” that had resources (human and financial) that were no less abundant than in this production. However, nothing worked in that show and I could go on forever about my theories of why it did not work. But when you come upon that magical experience of “it works,” trying to explain how every element contributes to the whole experience risks missing the experience. I do not know why this works; I just know how right each part is and how little I was aware of myself as analyst.
It will be difficult for “War Horse” to have a life after Broadway – the puppets are unique and costly. The people who control them must have a level of skill and training that would be hard to match, certainly not in the realm of a typical Broadway chorus “swing.” Just the size of the cast is prohibitive; when was the last time you saw a straight play with a cast of 35? The play was originally produced by Britain’s subsidized National Theatre and it probably would never have made it to America were it not for the determination and underwriting of our decidedly un-national theatre at Lincoln Center and its visionary leaders, Andre Bishop and Bernard Gerstern.
Steven Spielberg may make a very good movie out of “War Horse.” It is his type of material. Yet leaving the Vivian Beaumont Theatre last night, I could only lament the fact that Spielberg’s film may be seen by millions of people, but they will be denied the thrill and the power of a uniquely temporal, dare I say “magical” theatrical experie