If one were to offer a concise comment on the script of War Horse, now at PlayhouseSquare, it might read: It's an after-school special about the love shared between a boy and his horse, with bullets.
But this show is much more than that, thanks to three things: some invigorating scenic effects, a ripping good performance by former Cleveland actor Andrew May, and life-size horsey puppets that seem so real you can almost smell the pony biscuits from the lobby.
In truth, you probably don't even need the first two of those features, as transfixing as these people-powered horses are. Essentially, they are comprised of the old vaudeville horse impersonation shtick, with one person animating the front legs and another person the aft.
With a third person operating the horse's head, these steeds tremble, shudder, paw the ground with their hooves, and generally behave like horses. But what sets them apart from most puppets is their breathing, chests expanding to take in air after a hard run or just breathing normally—it is this telling detail that makes the animals come alive even as they are inhabited and surrounded by their puppeteers.
Meanwhile, the horses' legs are masterfully articulated so that a trot, a canter and a gallop all seem substantially different and thoroughly recognizable.
Wait, I'm forgetting something. Oh yes, the story! Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford, it's about a teenager in England, Albert, whose daddy buys a half-thoroughbred foal whom the kid names Joey. After a rough patch, the two become fused at the heartstrings.
But then the foal becomes a stallion (a goose bump inducing transformation), World War I ignites and England is paying top dollar for able-bodied horses, so Albert's father sells Joey to the military. Joey's new master, Lieutenant Nicholls Jason Loughlin) is de-horsed early on and Joey and his stable mate Topthorn are conscripted into the German army, where they are saved by the kindly German grunt Friedrich Muller and a young French girl Emilie (Lavita Shaurice).
Meanwhile, Albert has grown up enough to join the British forces and he, of course, shows up on the battlefield at just the right time for a happy ending to ensue. Even with its mild anti-war theme, this is a story that is thoroughly predictable and not particularly riveting.
The simple set by Rae Smith utilizes a torn swath of fabric as a screen, upon which are shown simple pencil drawings of the appropriate scenery. But as the story deepens and darkens, these drawings become more fully animated until the explosions and scars of war are fully conveyed.
As for the people who play people on stage, they are almost an afterthought. Alex Morf makes an earnest and loyal Albert, and Angela Reed is rigid yet loving as his mother. But Andrew May steals the thunder from the others in the second act as Friedrich, portraying the conflicted heroism of this everyday soldier while adding some distinctive May-like touches of humor.
But let's face it, this show directed by Bijan Sheibani is all about the horses. And the Handspring Puppet Company knows how to wring the last milliliter of well-earned pathos out of these hollow yet oh-so-expressive equine creations.
This is where the magic of War Horse resides—in the visceral connection it makes with the audience. And this is probably the only place you'll see it, since this is not likely to be a show that will make the rounds of community theaters in the years to come.
So if you can get a ticket, the time is now for War Horse.