War and puppet horses on Broadway

Now that the first flush of summer has past, I am taking a break from the normal Shakespearean fare here at Bite Thumbnails in order to review some contemporary theatre. This is a piece of a series of posts reviewing Tony-nominated productions I was fortunate to see on a recent trip to New York City, including Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, War Horse, Arcadia, and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre has something for everyone, at rightly deserved this year’s Tony for Best Play because of this wide appeal while still challenging audiences. As you may have heard, this story about a boy and his horse spans the WWI period, posing as both a children’s story of innocent compassion for animal life as well as to comment on the non-anthropogenic wastes of modern warfare. Lincoln Center’s all-American cast worked to reboot the successful original, initially staged at the National in the UK to great acclaim, in a much smaller space that required innovative staging. The most difficult challenge faced by the US team, besides accommodating this work to an entirely new demographic, was the way in which they deployed puppetry to tell a serious story without cheapening or sugar-coating the mission.

The larger-than-life horse puppets presented an interesting contrast to the war time context of the piece. For one, the horses were controlled by three puppeteers each–dubbed the head, the heart, and the hind respectively–providing an overt visceral portrayal of a war that has begun to fade significantly in common memory. The intensity of their precise physicality of the animals cannot be lost on anyway: whinnies were harmonized, and the somewhat skittish awareness of horses was mimicked by ear movements and breathing that made you forget they were in fact puppets rather than the real thing. My favorite part is still the opening scene where Joey as a foal tries out his legs, walks around stage and just breathes and smells the ground. This was followed up by a full-grown Joey (just a touch larger than a real Hunter) entering behind his younger self to signal the passage of time, which was extremely powerful. The production is a good example of the eco-critical movements in performance and literature that consist of a purposeful move aware from anthropocentric plot lines and characterizations.

As I mentioned, using WWI as a topical setting for what was initially a children’s story is an interesting move, reminding me of works like that became prevalent in the decade. Joey is an actual fighter in the war, struggling against tanks and barbed wire. Choosing to stage an animal observer at the center of the piece, able to cross sides without allegiances, brought the reality and terror of war right to the forefront rather than smoothed away–something I expected. The trauma of modernity and technological advances in warfare seems to elude methods of bald literary consideration; War Horse is like Bengal Tiger in that they are both part of a compositional trend to  consider modern war from animal or unconventional perspectives.

What made War Horse so successful for me was its mass appeal across generations who have different experiences of war life, as well as appealing to our need to protect innocence–child and animal alike. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house considering it was the week before the Tony’s and our audience was likely made up of veteran theatre-goers and last-minute Tony voters. It is a beautiful work, both aesthetically and emotionally, deserving it’s Tony wins for innovation in execution, explication, and universality.

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