By Martin F. Kohn
Joey the horse, the main character in “War Horse,” is described as half-draft, half-thoroughbred, which makes perfect sense. Depending on your point of view, he either carries the show or runs away with it.
In this Tony-winning stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s tale of the First World War, Joey isn’t a he but a they – a life-sized horse puppet operated by three puppeteers: two inside, at its front and back legs, respectively, and one outside at its head. Nor is Joey the only steed in the stable. So skilled are the designers, builders and operators of the puppets – not to mention immersed in the ways of horses – that the animals appear to be real even though you can see the puppeteers.
It plays at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 5. Get showtimes and ticket information at www.encoremichigan.com.
“War Horse” is your basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-joins-the-British-army-to-seek-horse story, with much attendant drama along the way. Like the horses, the drama feels authentic even though you’re aware of the underlying mechanics, and the whole thing is absolutely wonderful.
On the human side, “War Horse” is about Devonshire teenager Albert Narracott (Michael Wyatt Cox) who instantly bonds with the colt his father brings home one day in 1914. Under Albert’s tutelage Joey proves his worth on the family farm, but when Britain enters the war the call goes out for horses as well as soldiers. Spoiler Alert (although the play isn’t called “Farm Horse,” for pity’s sake): Albert’s dad sells Joey to the army.
Albert is too young to enlist but, ignoring his mother’s admonition not to grow up too fast, eventually goes off to war. Boy and horse have their separate, harrowing adventures. Maybe they reunite at the end. I’ll never tell.
A story of courage, loyalty, hardship and unexpected kindness (on both sides of the battle lines), “War Horse” is beautifully mounted (sorry), with the most impressive overall look from stage right to stage left since “Les Miserables.” Kudos are due a large and ever-aware cast (nobody ever just stands around), original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, tour director Bijan Sheibani, director of movement and horse choreography Toby Sedgewick, the National Theatre of Great Britain, the Handspring Puppet Company (special local shout-out to associate puppetry director Matthew Acheson, a Detroit native) and platoons of other artists.
It’s not a musical but there’s plenty of music. It’s not a movie, but there are projections on a jagged screen that look like a page torn from history. It’s not a puppet show, but it wouldn’t exist without puppetry.
There is simply nothing like “War Horse.”
Martin F. Kohn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.