There are very few moments in any field of art when you see, read or hear a piece so seminal, so unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed before, that you are awestruck that one piece can help evolve the art form to a higher level.
This experience is likely viewed through a generational lens. A list of my personal enlightenments include the first time as an adult that I read Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath," the first time I witnessed a live production of "A Chorus Line" and seeing the movie "Star Wars" in the summer of 1977.
I experienced another such instance on September 13, while watching the Tony winning play "War Horse" at the Winspear Theater in the AT&T PAC.
"War Horse" is an imaginative, sentimental and wondrously executed play that explodes the boundaries of stagecraft that came before it. The stars of the show are the life-size equine puppets created by Handspring Puppet Company constructed from metal, nylon mesh, cane and plywood.
The horse puppets are each manipulated by three puppeteers dressed as country villagers. Toby Sedgwick is given credit for "horse choreography." "War Horse" is based on a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford.
At the core, "War Horse" is a story about a boy and his horse. Albert is the boy and Joey is the horse and they live In an English village. As World War One breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry. Joey’s adventures include serving on both the British and Germany armies where he encounters the horrors of war.
Albert is determined to find Joey and bring him home. He is too young to enlist in the British army, so instead he sets off on his own odyssey to find his equine best friend.
Imagination is what sets "War Horse" apart from its peers. The plays creative team has done the near impossible: they allow you to witness imagination itself the way a child or adult imagines a book they are reading. The rear half of the stage is mostly kept unlit allowing one’s mind to imagine what is happening beyond the action occurring at the front half of the stage. The backdrop contains a gigantic horizontal tear in it, as if a large beast intended to rip it into shreds. Onto this tear is projected mostly sketch images of villages, a meadow, and then ultimately the images of war: shells bursting, soldiers falling, death.
At the 2011 Tony Awards, the entire creative team were champions: Best Direction, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting, Best Sound and a "Special Tony" was awarded to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company. "War Horse" also was the winner the Best Play.
"War Horse" is easily the best touring production of a straight play that Dallas has seen this year and is a must-see. That’s not to say it’s a perfect play. With so much care going into the horse puppetry, movement, twitches and other little gems that make these equine puppets come alive, why was there the need to add more?
Granted we’re just talking a few flying birds, some vultures and one easily annoyed goose, but compared against the horse puppets, these smaller ones seem like skeletons in a lion’s den.
Despite this being a small story about a boy and his horse, the human cast is so large they could put on a full production of "Les Miserables." Further, with so many humans on stage plus two sets of adventures being told "War Horse" could have benefited from the "less is more" adage.