The touring production of "War Horse," which runs through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, brings one of the most distinctive Broadway events of recent years to Rochester.
"War Horse" started as a popular young people's book by Michael Morpurgo, then became a play by Nick Stafford for the National Theatre of Great Britain, which produced it in an extravagantly and irresistibly theatrical style. This version has been a continuing success in England, Canada, and on Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards in 2011. ("War Horse" was also successfully adapted for the movies by Steven Spielberg.)
The story begins in Thomas Hardy-ish fashion: just before World War I, a British farmer named Ted Narracott (Gene Gillette) spends his mortgage money to buy a beautiful thoroughbred horse at auction - mainly to spite his wealthy brother (Andrew Long), who also wants it. The horse is skittish and unsuited to farm life, until Narracott's son Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox) takes charge of him, training him, naming him Joey, and forging a bond of affection that doesn't exist between son and father.
When World War I breaks out, Narracott sells Joey to the Army for 100 pounds, to Albert's despair. The boy runs away from home, lies about his age, and joins the military, determined to see his beloved horse again. Joey undergoes some horrific adventures in wartime France and Belgium, as does Albert, and I suppose it's not really a spoiler to say that ... well, the story has a happy, and tear-inducing, ending.
"War Horse" knits text, music, sound effects, lighting, and all the other tools of theater to remarkable effect. The large cast is in constant movement, whether several of them are playing a marauding tank on a battlefield or one of them is a bad-tempered goose in a farmyard, and they are deployed as skillfully as soldiers in battle (actually, they're deployed much more skillfully than most soldiers were in World War I). The stage is essentially bare, with set pieces brought in to suggest farmhouses or battlefields; the action is enhanced by projections on a white surface that spans the stage above the actors' heads and resembles a torn piece of paper.
The actors (there are more than 30 in the cast, many playing multiple roles) are excellent, but most will agree that the stars of "War Horse" are the members of Handspring Puppet Company, who play the various horses in the tale, including Joey as a foal and Joey fully grown (his appearance as a grown horse is a thrilling surprise, the very definition of "theatricality"). The horses are wondrously complicated-looking constructions, each one operated by several Handspring performers. (Working for Handspring Puppet Company is surely the coolest job ever.) Once the story gets into gear, you really don't see the performers -- but you do think you are watching real horses, so carefully detailed are their movements, reactions, and noises. Joey doesn't say a word in the show, but he gets some of the audience's biggest reactions just by flicking his tail or moving his head.
Most people probably go to "War Horse" to see the horses, but much of the show is devoted to a stunningly stylized portrayal of World War I battles, skirmishes, attacks, and alarums. World War I is still unrivalled for sheer human destruction, and long stretches of "War Horse" display the chaos and brutality of battle. (The production reaches some epic noise levels and includes numerous sudden gunshots, so be prepared for that when you go.)
I started watching "War Horse" drawn in by the craft and imagination displayed on stage from the first minute. But by the end, when the epic story is resolved in a simple tableau, I was as moved as seemingly everybody else in the audience. For all its theatrical brilliance, "War Horse" is a simple, affecting show.