The First World War marked the advent of machinery to bring unprecedented death and destruction to the battlefield. It’s interesting how War Horse, playing at the Paramount through February 24, uses the machinery of stagecraft and miraculous puppetry to bring the powerful emotions of that horror to the stage.
War Horse is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and was adapted for the stage by the National Theater of Great Britain and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. It’s been a smash hit in London and New York and the Seattle production is based on the original staging – including the astonishing Handspring puppets.
When I say puppets you might be thinking of Kermit and Miss Piggy but the life-size horses that dominate this story go so far beyond traditional puppetry that we may have to invent a new term for what the Handspring Company has achieved. The horses are made from bent cane, fabric, and leather and are operated by three people, they interact with the actors and each other in realistic ways, and characters ride them around the stage. The work the puppeteers are doing is essentially modern dance and the most magical moments come when the human characters are off-stage and the puppets are the focus. The illusion of life is so powerful that it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and see them as actual horses. The illusion even goes beyond reality allowing the horses to convey emotion without becoming anthropomorphic. It’s the magic of puppetry taken to the extreme. It doesn’t end with the horses, crowd-pleasing comic relief is provided by the Goose, and terrifying machines of war come to life and rumble across the stage.
It’s a daunting challenge for the live actors to have to interact with these mechanical marvels and that side of the show sometimes has mixed results. Alex Morf as Sergeant Thunder is consistently entertaining and brings much needed humor to the second act and Andrew May helps us to connect with the sympathetic German cavalry officer Friedrich Muller.
So with all this astonishing puppetry is this a good show to take your kids to? According to National Theater artistic director Nicholas Hytner, “[War Horse] was always conceived as a play for family. Actually, I think the ideal audience includes children as young as 10. Yes, people and animals get killed, that’s something that happens in war. It’s not something to be shielded from.”
In response to this I would strongly caution parents to think carefully about what their kids can handle. When Mr. Hytner says that people and animals get killed you need to know that this happens on stage. In addition the music, sound, and staging all add to the powerful and at times nightmarish emotional impact. They have effectively recreated the battlefields of World War I on a bare stage and nothing is shielded.
Do you agree or disagree with my assessment or have something to add?
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Let me know what you think.