War is hell on humans and horses, a truth transformed into a masterpiece of theatrical magic by the Tony Award-winning "War Horse." The play tugs at heartstrings like a maestro of emotions, conducting a finely tuned composition of bending and breaking and mending, and starting the process all over again.
"War Horse" accomplishes that and more with a huge bound in the evolution of puppetry.
The title character, a loyal mix of hunter and draft horse named Joey, is realized by three people manipulating a mass of wires, mesh and levers in the shape of a horse's outer shell. Their artistry and authenticity allows us to relate to Joey as a flesh-and-blood character. We root for the horse at least as much as we do for the teenager who loves him, Albert Narracott, played in a winning performance by Andrew Veenstra in the national tour production now at the Benedum Center.
Albert's alcoholic father, Ted (Todd Cerveris), overpays with money the family can't afford for the foal Joey, much to the dismay of his capable wife, Rose, played by Angela Reed in thoroughly relatable performance. She's fiercely protective of both her husband and son, even when Ted's actions put them at risk.
We share in her worries and Albert's quick bond with Joey, who determines to deny his nature and earn his keep. The transition from timid foal to frisky colt occurs in one dramatic, applause-inducing moment, before boy and horse share the experience of growing pains amid a family and farm in crisis.
Their story begins in 1914, when England is going to war with Germany and the army is in need of horses. We are reminded of the year, sometimes notable dates, by a clever device designed by Rae Smith: text and representational drawings projected on a stage-wide narrow strip, like a torn piece of paper, across a black background.
Ted breaks a promise to his son, lured by the sum the army is paying, and sells Joey to a kindly officer, who is an artist and has drawn Albert and Joey during his time in their village. His promise to return the horse in a matter of months doesn't diminish the sense of loss and dread as Joey is ripped from Albert's life.
It doesn't take a leap to know that 16-year-old Albert will join other underage teens who enlist and become cannon fodder and gas victims in trenches throughout Europe.
Joey's lot on the battlefield becomes tied to another horse, Topthorn, a black beauty admired for his look, while Joey earns admiration for his stout heart under pressure.
While death and atrocities occur all around them, Albert inspires his newfound friend, David, with his steadfast belief that he will find Joey, and Joey proves his mettle for a kindly German officer (Andrew May) who befriends Joey and Topthorn, a young French girl (Lavita Shaurice) who reminds him of his daughter back home and other desperate souls on the battlefield.
With the actors tackling accents from throughout the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the humans aren't always intelligible, but there is no denying what the horses were thinking and feeling -- yes, feeling. Even a farm goose manipulated by a single puppeteer with a wheelbarrow-like contraption displays perfect comic timing with a mere flap of its wings.
Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated movie, inspired by the Nick Stafford play and the Michael Morpurgo novel at the root of the adaptations, had real flesh-and-blood horses with which to tug at our emotions. In the theater, the animals transform instantly from representations to manifestations, based on the design by the Handspring Puppet Company's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, with movement and choreography by Toby Sedgwick and the expert work of a dozen or so puppeteers at each performance.
Music and songs by Adrian Sutton and John Tams add to the drama and flow of the story, with intermittent folk ditties by vocalist John Milosich, and Nathan Koci on accordion.
From the earliest moments, when Ted's drinking becomes a blight on his family, "War Horse" gives a hint that it's not just a mere child's tale about a boy and his horse. The scenes of World War I are not for the faint-hearted. Puppet vultures peck at human and animal remains and loud gunshots land with the effect of a monster leaping from the darkness -- I jumped even when I knew they were coming, as much for the sound as intended targets.
The language of soldiers is sprinkled with obscenities, but nothing is more obscene than the cruelty and death of the World War I battlefield. "War Horse" doesn't shy from the sights and sounds of war: noises of explosions and blaring lights, young men's laughter in the trenches followed by death and destruction, a fearsome tank and tangled barbed wire. Horses less fully realized than Joey and Topthorn add to the illusion of a cavalry or are strewn about as carcasses on the battlefield.
It's a huge production, one that had the war combatants going over the edge of the proscenium as into trenches. Adding to the expansive scenes are figures and horses emerging from and exiting into blackness and smoke, with light aiding focus or fades from view.
If the stagecraft of "War Horse" inspires amazement and admiration, the battles scenes spark memories of the recent debate in which President Obama admonished his challenger by saying "You mention ... the fact that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets."
"War Horse" takes us back to that terrible time when rifles were fitted with bayonets and bloody battles were waged on the backs of yesteryear's beasts of burden. The characters' humanity is revealed in those more prone to relieving the burden, to cherishing the beast whose life is in their hands.
And if that's not enough of an attraction, you really don't want to miss the puppets.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published November 15, 2012 5:00 AM