Hands down one of the most hypnotic, creatively-staged plays ever conceived for the theater, the Tony Award-winning WAR HORSE -- whose National Tour is now on stage at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts through February 3 -- is an utterly stirring feat of theatrical magic, expertly combining dazzling technical wizardry with a touching story of hope and perseverance. Using remarkable life-size animal puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company, which are then brought to jaw-droppingly realistic life by an ensemble of expert puppeteers, this superb production is a moving, honorable tribute to those that have suffered through the horrors of modern warfare.
Originally produced for the London stage in 2007 by The National Theatre of Great Britain before opening a successful Broadway production at the Lincoln Center Theatre in 2011 (which yielded five Tony Awards including Best Play), WAR HORSE is an ingeniously-devised epic drama that depicts the precious, unwavering relationship between a young man and his intelligent beast (The play was also later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg).
The simple yet gripping story -- based on the best-selling YA novel by Michael Morpurgo -- tracks the life of Joey, a once young foal sold off at an auction in rural Devon, England in 1912. Won by town drunk Ted (Todd Cerveris) after a heated bidding war with his older brother Arthur (Brian Keane), Joey is taken to his new farm home, much to the frustrated protests of Ted's wife Rose (Angela Reed), who is furious that Ted had used that month's mortgage payment to buy Joey. But Ted's teenage son Albert (the very likable Andrew Veenstra), however, is delighted by his father's impulsive purchase.
Soon Joey blossoms -- under the patient, loving tutelage of his young, caring "master" -- into a steadfast, loyal, highly-intuitive work horse. The two form a deep, unbreakable bond...that is, until Joey is forced into combat during the outbreak of the first World War. As recruitment for soldiers and supplies grips the countryside, Joey is sold off to the war effort by Ted -- without Albert's consent. Devastated by his four-legged friend's shocking departure and afraid for Joey's well-being, Albert eventually fakes his age and illegally enlists in the army, in hopes of finding his beloved horse and bring him home to Devon.
Meanwhile, in the midst of hard labor alongside another army horse, Topthorn, Joey is captured with his British army unit in France by an invading German contingent, which includes the affable Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May). Both Joey and Topthorn are then put to work, this time for the German army, showing prowess in pulling carts of dead bodies through the French terrain.
As the war rages on, Friedrich's loving admiration of all horses -- and his budding friendship with a young local villager Emilie (Lavita Shaurice) -- soon helps reverse his personal stance on the war. An opportunity for escape comes after an attack decimates his unit, sparking an idea in Friedrich to switch identities with one of the deceased German soldiers and to desert the German fight altogether.
The parallel journeys that both Joey and Albert each travel within the scope of this new kind of war -- one that employs new technologies like rapid-fire guns, all-terrain tanks and flesh-piercing barbed wire -- make up the bulk of the play's riveting progress. Much of the story is also told through haunting musical chants and rough, animated sketches that are projected above the action. At the edge of our seats, we all wonder... Will Albert and Joey ever reunite amidst all this destruction and devastation?
Beautifully poetic as it is marvelously innovative, WAR HORSE is, by any measure, an astonishing triumph in stage-craft. Aside from the complex puppets (animal and otherwise) that populate the play -- themselves wonderful works of art -- the gorgeous, animated "sketches" that are projected on a gigantic ripped piece of parchment floating above the actors feel like moving paintings, helping to illustrate the story by adding a bit of a legend/fable quality to it. The play's clever use of shadow and light are also quite stimulating, providing appropriate moods and moments that further heighten the drama.