BWW Reviews: Unique Theatrical Experience in WAR HORSE Not to be Missed
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by Brooke Bridenstine
War Horse, which played last week at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, is about as unique a theatrical experience as there has been in recent years. Not musical enough to be a musical but with enough music that calling it a play does not quite set expectations properly. Some have described it as a theatrical experience, but that makes it sound like STOMP or Blast, something without a narrative plot. However you may choose to describe War Horse, one thing is certain, it will take your breath away.
Set during the First World War, War Horse tells the story of young Albert and his horse Joey. When Joey is sold to the British Army, Albert is heartbroken takes it upon himself to track him down and bring him home. The strain of familial rivalries and divergent objectives serve as a framework for the underlying tale of one boy's love for his horse.
Michael Wyatt Cox, as young Albert, wonderfully portrays Albert with the right combination of youthful naiveté and mature devotion. And despite the fact that Joey is not a real animal, Cox expertly interacts with Joey as if he were. Andrew May, as Captain Friedrich Muller, gives the German soldier who becomes Joey's protector a warm nature whose appreciation for Joey matches that of young Albert's.
War Horse is first and foremost an incredible showcase for the horse puppetry crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company. The human-operated puppets - calling them puppets does not do them justice - walk, gallop, and even breathe in a manner that is so similar to a real horse that the line between imagination and reality begins to blur. Further, the horses begin to mirror human emotions so acutely that you identify with them and become emotionally invested in their well-being.
In addition to the masterful horses, the production also excels at creating a convincing atmosphere using sound and props. In fact, one of the ways in which the horses are made to shine brighter is that the rest of the set design is simplistic and bare. In fact, there are no full sets, just a door that stands in for Albert's family home and the actors themselves hold beams and rods that serve as fence posts, flag poles and the like. In particular, the battle scenes amazed because of the incredible tension that is built with the shock of a surprise explosion and the stark silence that follows.
It is very difficult to capture the magic of War Horse in words because the audible gasps from the audience when Joey first appears fully grown does not translate well to the page. Just as Joey holds a special place in Albert's heart, War Horse will no doubt hold a special place in the hearts of all those lucky enough to witness this tale.