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November 2, 2012

'War Horse' works its theatrical magic at the Kennedy Center

A flick of a tail, the slightest turn of a head, and the horse named Joey has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Never mind that you can see three guys manipulating the various body parts on this giant puppet, the star of the London and Broadway hit “War Horse” now at the Kennedy Center and destined for Baltimore’s Hippodrome next season.

Within seconds, you don’t really see Joey’s manipulators, only the life-like results. Would that you couldn’t see each turn and manipulative tug of the plot a mile off. But no point dwelling on that.

“War Horse,” adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel adapted by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, doesn’t aim for subtlety or layering. This big, old-fashioned, World War I saga delivers all of its messages about family, friends and fidelity in straightforward ways that young theater-goers will grasp quickly and, no doubt, heartily.

Even older folks who can’t help but notice how the melodramatic elements heat up as intensely as the battles scenes, or who start squirming from the pile-up of cliches and it’s-a-small-world coincidences, are apt to be won over, probably even misty-eyed, in the end. The show is, ...


in the best sense of the word (there used to be a best sense of the word), sentimental.

Starting in rural England and moving to the horrid battlefields of France during World War I, this boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-gets-horse story unfolds with a terrific cinematic sweep thanks to consistently striking stagecraft. (Rae Smith is the scenic and costume designer.)

It’s easy to understand all the fuss made over the puppetry. In addition to foal Joey and full-grown Joey, there’s the regal Topthorn, an army horse that Joey bonds with at the front. Some cool avian characters pop up vividly as well.

In each case, it is the naturalness of the figures that gets you. The equine ones communicate awareness and feelings in such an uncanny, disarming fashion that you may just find yourself thinking horses are people, too, my friend. A little anthropomorphism never hurt anybody.

Keeping Joey safe becomes the life mission for Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra), a boy in the Devon countryside who suddenly finds himself with a horse to tend and train. Albert’s father, who tends to drink too much, buys the animal more out of pride than interest. Conflict between father and son becomes a major driving force in the tale.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play finds the Devon folk being swept up in patriotic flourishes and the inevitable we’ll-all-be-home-for-Christmas notions, all juxtaposed against Albert’s heartache as he realizes his father had sold Joey to the military.

When the focus shifts to the battlefront, things move eventfully, if sometimes sluggishly. There is the aptly named Sergeant Thunder, who barks and snarks at the British recruits, but primarily provides comic relief.

Joey’s fate includes capture by the enemy, which, not surprisingly, includes a good German amid the bad Germans. A sweet French farm girl enters the picture, too, along the way, and is in terrible danger. At some point, just when you expect somebody to say, “Damn this bloody war,” somebody does.

And it is bloody. The cold randomness of battle is driven home with great theatrical flourish; a chilling image of troops advancing in a slow march, being picked off by gunfire as they go, brings to mind the indelible scene in the silent film classic “The Big Parade.”

Death comes so starkly and unfairly to some of the characters that it’s hard to remember this is a children’s story. But all of this, along with Albert’s quest to find his favorite companion, helps underscore how perceptions and values, not just loyalties, are sorely tested by war.

Speaking of underscoring, Adrian Sutton’s music, with its John Williams-esque emotional swelling, becomes a key ingredient in the production. In addition to that pre-recorded soundtrack, two performers — vocalist John Milosich and instrumentalist Nathan Koci — weave through the proceedings, performing folksy songs by John Tams.

This can be a little cloying at times, especially when the duo pops up after some dreadful bit of violence. And the lyrics are not always the freshest (“Round goes the wheel of fortune, don’t be afraid to ride”). But, mostly, the device serves neatly as a connective thread and as a reminder of the humans in the story who, when they pass from “this earth and its toiling,” and “only remembered for what we have done.”

The humans in “War Horse” don’t get as much chance to shine as the puppets, but the national touring cast (the production originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain and was directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), does sturdy work.

Veenstra is a vigorous, appealing Albert. As Albert’s mother, Rose, Angela Reed manages to get a touching dimension out of the thinly drawn character. There are vibrant turns by Brian Keane as Sergeant Thunder and Alex Morf as Albert’s foxhole buddy Dave.

The star turns are by all the several handlers who find in those brilliantly designed puppets the stuff of rare theatrical magic.

"War Horse" runs through Nov. 11 at the Kennedy Center.



Posted by Tim Smith at 3:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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