Theater can be like magic. You can take an assemblage of wire, wood, and mesh and convince people without a shred of doubt that it is a horse. And not just any horse, but Joey, the beloved half thoroughbred who is the heart and soul of the imaginative, moving new Broadway drama War Horse. First produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007, the play centers on a gawky British teen named Albert (Seth Numrich) who enlists during World War I hoping to find Joey after his drunken lout of a father (Boris McGiver) sells the steed to the British army. (Steven Spielberg's film version is due in theaters this December.)
The play's equine stars are the remarkable creation of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones' Handspring Puppet Company. As manipulated by three handlers dressed in period costumes, the life-size creatures seem to breathe, snort, feed, walk, gallop, and rear up just as naturally as the genuine articles. In no time at all, they become characters as rounded and complex as any of the humans on stage.
Perhaps more so, given that Nick Stafford's script (based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel) tends to assign the non-horse characters simple attributes and straightforward goals: Albert is a hardworking boy, his dad is an impulsive hothead, etc. They are two-dimensional archetypes, the stuff of kids' theater or of allegory. The final scenes build to a gut punch that underscores the particular horrors of WWI, which marked the last stand for cavalries since horses couldn't compete with newfangled machine guns and tanks. The evocative message of War Horse lingers: Even as we seek to slaughter our foes with ever more ruthless efficiency, we need not lose our humanity. A–
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)