Of all the triumphs “War Horse” catalogues — of Allied forces in World War I; of a boy’s fierce devotion; of an animal’s fighting spirit — the most exhilarating is one of engineering. The magnificent equine puppets that rear up and canter and whinny are the bona fide stars of this Tony-winning, British-born play, and the teams of actors who manipulate their ears, necks, torsos and tails are unreservedly its heroes.
The creatures, movingly conjured by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, are skeletal, transparent: They manage to seem at once both sturdy and ethereal. But even if you’re meant to recognize that three skilled human beings are required to operate each of the realistic-size mechanisms, the actors by and by fall out of your field of vision, and what your eyes tend to rest on is an uncanny intimation of life, in the animals’ own eyes.
This illusion is essential to one’s enjoyment of the touring “War Horse” that had its official local opening Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo that was also developed into a 2011 Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg, this gritty, at times violent fairy tale succeeds more on the basis of its visual lyricism than any of its literary qualities.
That’s because the only characters who feel completely fleshed out in Nick Stafford’s script are the ones constructed from fabric and metal. The many humans inhabiting the extraordinary landscape created by set and costume designer Rae Smith and the animators at 59 Productions are by and large schematic devices for the advancement of “War Horse’s” super-sentimental plot.
Rest assured: That plot — stretched over the course of two acts almost to the limits of its viability — pays off in the end, big time. If you’re not drying your eyes at the resolution of the story of the quest by English farm boy Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) to scour the battlefields of France for his beloved horse, Joey, you might have to question whether you’re the one with the heart of steel.
Most plays these days would be swallowed up whole by the epic expanse of the Opera House. “War Horse” is the exception. It’s a play with an opera’s outsize claim on the senses. Once again, though, audibility is a problem in the space; the rural British and French accents affected by some of the actors render dialogue unintelligible. Music remains an important element here, delivered through Adrian Sutton’s motion-picture-like underscoring and the folk-singing of the mellifluous John Milosich, veteran of Washington’s own Synetic Theater. But it is the orchestration of images that gives “War Horse” a certain grandeur.
The drama charts the deep connection Albert forges with Joey, raising him on a farm in Devon, and his profound despair after his father, a man of textbook callousness portrayed by Todd Cerveris, sells the horse to the British army for service in France. The teenage Albert surreptitiously enlists and heads to the front to look for Joey, who, meanwhile, is captured by the Germans. He comes under the protection of a kindly captain (the excellent Andrew May), who is apparently unaware that in war stories, a German officer is supposed to be some kind of sadist.
Our collective desire to believe in our higher bond with nature fuels the mystical connection onstage between Albert and Joey. As you watch the acting teams infusing the puppets with lifelike movement — could that heaving assemblage of nuts and bolts actually be breathing? — you’ll think of Joey as ever more capable of feeling. And you’ll know one of the real meanies of the piece is talking when he declares animals are not like humans: They’re just “beasts.”
Oh, so wrong! Although a few of the humans have compelling things to say — like Veenstra’s thoroughly sympathetic Albert, for instance, and Angela Reed’s warmly maternal Rose Narracott — the facets of “War Horse” that linger longest in the memory are strictly nonverbal. That major characters die with little visceral impact reveals how thinly they’re conceived. Often, props and design elements come across as far more inspired: a mischievous goose, propelled around the barnyard on a wheel; a panel above the stage, displayed as if it were a piece of shattered masonry, on which rustic drawings and animated snippets are projected; a ragged horse puppet, stripped of color, to suggest the deprivations of war.
The youngest of theatergoers will find some of “War Horse” too intense. Little is left to the imagination by the original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris — whose work has been re-created for the tour by Bijan Sheibani — in the sights and sounds of trench warfare, and the brutal treatment of horse and human alike. For the rest of the family, though, “War Horse” is the kind of event that can awaken the consciousness to a surprising wealth of genius in live theater, the sort that will have kids — and even some adults — dying to know what else they have been missing.
Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s novel. Directed by Bijan Sheibani, based on original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Horse movement, Toby Sedgwick; puppet design, Handspring Puppet Company; sets and costumes, Rae Smith; lighting, Paule Constable; projections, 59 Productions; songs, John Tams; sound Christopher Shutt; music director, Greg Pliska. With Nathan Koci, Michael Wyatt Cox, Megan Loomis, Lavita Shaurice, Alex Morf. About 2½ hours. Through Nov. 11 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.