'War Horse' at the Academy of Music packs powerful antiwar message

Andrew Veenstra plays Albert, the English farm boy who becomes attached to Joey the horse before the steed is sold into wartime service.
Andrew Veenstra plays Albert, the English farm boy who becomes attached to Joey the horse before the steed is sold into wartime service.
Posted: November 23, 2012

'They're not human beings! They're beasts!"

So proclaims a German officer in the thick of battle in War Horse, the Tony Award-culling spectacle that spends this week and next at the Academy of Music. Though the beasts in question are played by larger-than-life-size puppets, much of the audience at that point in the World War I saga would disagree vehemently. Thanks to the physical fluidity and expressive precision afforded by sophisticated puppetry, the war horses seem, at times, like superior alternatives to humanity.

A radical statement - but one that makes sense in the context of the play (as opposed to the recent Steven Spielberg film), which handily lives up to its advance hype, not as a great literary event but as a compelling theatrical one.

Nick Stafford's play (based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 book) presents a panorama of the War to End All Wars from the point of view of a horse named Joey: He's ridden into battle, captured by the other side, pulls wagons full of wounded Germans, and ultimately sees fellow beasts die while dragging heavy artillery through battlefields. Oddly, the play isn't nearly as grim as the Spielberg film, thanks in part to welcome gallows humor.

The use of puppet animals in this National Theatre of Great Britain production is crucial. Never during the performance do you stop believing that they're puppets, the three people required to work them always being visible. As in The Lion King, the power of suggestion prompts a deeper engagement from the viewer: Your brain is required to complete the picture.

   Not everything is suggestive. The mostly bare stage has a video screen with computer-animated battle effects that, in their own way, are as pungent as anything I've seen on film.

The one piece of stage machinery seen on Broadway but not on tour is a revolving turntable - always helpful for cinematic-style changes of scene. So the production, originally directed by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, has been somewhat restaged. And though I haven't seen the Broadway production, the road show has moments of minor time-and-place confusion, often when multiple scenes in this fast-paced, compressed narrative are happening almost simultaneously.

The script leaves some (though not much) room for acting, mainly in the roles of the English farm boy Albert (Andrew Veenstra), who becomes devoted to Joey before the young horse is sold into wartime service, and the German officer Friedrich, who protects the horse after its capture and is played with quietly tormented charisma by Andrew May.

American audiences might wonder why many scenes are meticulously documented by a text narration giving the time and date of the action. Remember that this is a British property, and that the war is a much more elemental part of English history; were it a stronger part of ours, we might learn more from it.

Here, we do: The story's boy-and-his-animal sentimentality is the Trojan horse (no pun intended) for an effective antiwar play. And an important one: War Horse has been seen, at last count, by 2.5 million people worldwide.


War Horse

Through Dec. 2 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $10-$100. 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|