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Updated Friday, February 15, 2013 at 08:07 AM

‘War Horse’ is a peak theater experience | Review

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

Humans and horses can share a special bond.

War is hell.

“War Horse,” from the National Theatre of Great Britain, does not tell us much we don’t know already.

But how it tells us! Like most peak theater events, this extraordinary production transports us to an imaginative plane where we can relearn essential truths. And it does so with an epic visual palette, awe-inspiring puppets, marching songs and lullabies, and with a (human and animal) cast of many, all seamlessly integrated into one creative vision.

Based on a World War I novel for young readers by British author Michael Morpurgo, this Tony Award-winning work is now touring the U.S. Through Feb. 24 it is sweeping, exploding and galloping across the Paramount Theatre stage.

The venue is not ideal: The cavernous Paramount swallows up some spoken dialogue, while thunderous sound effects are at full blast. That said, “War Horse” is a spectacle not to be missed by anyone interested in the vast potential of theatrical storytelling.

Like the novel (also the basis of a Steven Spielberg film), Nick Stafford’s stage adaptation opens in rural Devon, England, where farm boy Albert (Andrew Veenstra) watches his scrappy dad, Ted, risk the family spread to buy a chestnut colt at auction. He does so to best his brother Arthur; their festering personal conflict is symbolic of the war to come, and the notions of male bravery and cowardice that fuel it.

The extended sequence where Albert patiently raises, trains and forms a tender bond with the skittish horse, called Joey, are pure magic.

They communicate through verbal commands but also expressive snorts, ear twitches, nuzzles, tail swishes. And maybe you’ve heard that Joey, both the colt and the magnificent horse he becomes, are lifesized puppets made of leather and cane?

Sometimes you really do forget these creatures, created by the brilliant Handspring Puppet Company, are not the real thing.

When World War I is declared, Albert and Joey are separated — each shipped off with different cavalry units of men and horses. Most will be cannon fodder, victims of harrowing battles we are not spared.

As it becomes a kind of live war movie, the show’s ingenious animated backdrop of a scrolling sketchbook (designed by Rae Smith) replaces vistas of placid English countryside, with French fields of barbed wire and exploding bombs.

In Shakespearean fashion, “War Horse” questions and humanizes war with intimate scenes of individuals trapped in it — a sympathetic German soldier, Albert and his trench buddy, a terrified, lost little girl.

But the riveting Act 2 also boldly evokes the lethal randomness, the shattering barbarity and sheer human waste of warfare. Horses and humans you care about crumple and die before you.

But most adolescents are exposed to more violence in computer games. And the bloodshed here is more meaningful. It isn’t glorified, but lamented, personalized and questioned.

“War Horse” ends with a miraculous series of coincidences that may be wishful thinking, yet can move all but the steeliest of hearts.

The original directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, deserve credit for that and the overall impact of “War Horse,” as does the entire design team and large cast of performers. Especially those intrepid puppeteers.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

THEATER REVIEW

‘War Horse’

By Nick Stafford, produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and presented by Seattle Theatre Group and Seattle Repertory Theatre. Through Feb. 24 at Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $25-$105 (877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org)


Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Albert, played by Andrew Veenstra, left, with Joey (Christoper Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui).




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