The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through February 2, 2014
by Shera Cohen
It is impossible to think that any piece of theatre could be as superbly all-inclusive of the hundreds of elements that create the perfect play production as “War Horse.” Look in a thesaurus for rows upon rows of superlatives synonymous to any of the following words, and the reader can only come close to describing this play: exemplary, innovative, creative, ingenious.
The star is Joey, who grows from a foal to a full-sized horse. He is made of fabrics, metal, and wood. He is real. Granted, no attempts are made to hide the three actors who shape the body, sounds, and demeanor of Joey. While this trio of puppet masters are visible, within 30-seconds the audience is oblivious to their presence. The Handspring Puppet Company are the geniuses who gave birth to Joey. Joey runs and struts like a horse, neighs and breathes like a horse. Again, he is real.
His owner/friend Albert, is a farm boy from Great Britain. Yet, this is not just a story about a boy and his horse. Played against the seemingly literal backdrop of WWI, the hell of this conflagration to man and “beast” is wrenching. The technical effects of explosions are particularly terrifying, not just loud. War is seen and felt just as much by Joey as by Albert.
The exposition of three scenes in particular showcase the puppeteers' talents: Joey’s miraculous efforts to till the rock-ridden soil, his rivalry turned friendship with horse Topthorne, and his struggle caught in barbed wire along enemy lines.
The set is minimal and, in that sparseness, multiple scene drawings fixed overhead carry Joey and the play forward. Interspersed folk songs of the early 20th century string scenes from one to another.
“War Horse” is a play. Plays are nice, or not, but they are worthless without superior production qualities. “War Horse” has become a benchmark of excellence for future and even many past play productions.
Note #1: This was my second experience of “War Horse” -- the first in London. The Bushnell’s venue is near comparable.
Note #2: In spite of pre-curtain announcements about cell phone disturbance, many do not heed this rule. This is boorish and unfair to others.