Proctors' presentation of the National Theater of Britain and Lincoln’s Center Theater’s “War Horse” is an epic theatrical treat that is not to be missed.
Based on the 1982 novel for children by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” is part of that odd and important part of children’s literature where the horrors of life are spelled out with shocking intensity. If your child found joy, comfort and survived the telling of “The Red Badge of Courage” or “Old Yeller,” bring them along. For those who tear up at “Goodnight Moon,” bring a hankie and the strong shoulder of a friend.
Adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, the play follows the story of 16-year-old Albert and Joey, the horse he raised from a foal. As World War I approaches, Joey is sold to the British Cavalry. Crushed, Albert tries to get him back but can only extract a promise from an officer that the horse will be well cared for.
When Joey’s protector is killed, Albert sets off to find his friend and bring him home. Both boy and horse suffer the effects of war, grow and change. But some bonds are unbreakable and the ending — well, it is inappropriate to reveal that. Let’s just say it is emotionally shattering.
Designed and crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company, Joey comes to life, exquisitely, right before our eyes. Manipulated by three visible handlers (Danny Yoegers, Patrick Osteen and Dana Tietzen) they fade from focus as Joey rears up and takes on a life of his own. From tail twitch to ear wiggle, every aspect breathes true, creating a relationship that is as far from actor and puppet as can be — it’s truly boy and friend.
All of the creations of Handspring, from Joey to Topthorn — a black steed of towering power and strength — down to a raucous goose (faultlessly handled by Gregory Manley) are glorious. The scene of Joey and Topthorn riding into battle at the end of Act I is a triumph of theatrical design and execution that packs a thrilling emotional wallop.
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through Sunday, 2014
HOW MUCH: $95-$20
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204, www.proctors.org
While visceral touches are well handled by superb direction and design, Stafford’s adaptation does little improve on Morpurgo’s human characters, leaving them mostly as children’s lit archetypes.
As Albert, Chad Jennings discovers an honest emotional core that transcends the limitations of the script. The other players do as well, but it is Joey who finds a more substantial emotional arc.
Originally conceived for the thrust stage of Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theater, the tour has been effectively re-staged for standard proscenium houses by Bijan Shelbani. Despite Sedgwick’s stellar direction and Joey’s mesmerizing movements, the action at times seems cramped and tight, even on Proctors’ vast stage.
Artfully designed projections create a cinematic feel that keeps the momentum. The sound mix was a bit problematic on opening night, leaving some lines muddy and muffled.
What makes “War Horse” a must-see event is its brilliant use of the powers of live theater — a story with universal themes; performers who surrender completely to the story; outstanding design; lighting that enhances and surprises; and music that places time and emotion with perfect grace.