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Opinion: ‘War Horse’ is masterfully engaging

November 23, 2012
By SARAH REED - Special to the Weekender , The Herald-Star

Blasts of heavy gunfire, cries of terror, and the prevailing rumble of horses' hooves have all silenced their alarm within Pittsburgh's Benedum Center, as "War Horse," a touring dramatization of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel of the same name, has ended its run.

Morpurgo's story of enduring devotion and harrowing wartime ordeals, brought to life by an exceptional cast and innovative stage craft, exposed the heart to tremendous emotional warfare while it challenged the mind and dazzled the eye.

A boundless affection and tender devotion awaken on an August day in 1912, when Ted Narracott, a man of minute affluence but abundant pride, brings a spindly foal to live on his farm in Devon, England, after winning him during an auction in which he and his brother were in heated battle over the self-same animal. Narracott's brother eventually challenges Ted to yet another bet, still involving the colt. If the horse can, in a week's time, learn to push a plow, Ted will receive a monetary gift from his brother, but if not, he must forfeit the colt. The possibility of losing the colt upsets no one more than Ted's teenage son, Albert who has taken a fondness to the young horse. While determinately and single-handedly instructing the yearling in the grueling farm task, Albert and Joey, a name seemingly mutually agreed upon by the young boy and his hoofed friend, deepen their bond of profound companionship and trust, a connection that will eventually be tested for longstanding endurance as the two best friends are separated at the onslaught of World War I and must fight for the most valuable prize of all: a reunion.

As Albert, Andrew Veenstra exuded an adorable boyish sweetness and energy as he traverses Albert's early years, while never loosing his gentleness, even after his Albert has been forced to mature.

Todd Cerveris, as Ted Narracott, depicted a man of striking cowardice and insecurity, while Angela Reed, Cerveris' real-life wife, brought a winsome courageousness to her portrayal of Ted's wife Rose.

Using sparse props and scenery, the most integral part of this magnificent production was the unique form of storytelling used to breathe life into the animal characters of the story. Life-sized puppets, manipulated mostly by multiple puppeteers, animated such important characters as Joey, a magnificent black horse named Topthorn, as well as various birds and other horses. In Joey's case, when he becomes fully grown, he is controlled by three puppeteers, two of which are semi-visible inside the frontal and hind quarters of Joey's massive puppet body, while the third puppeteer is completely visible and outside of Joey, leading his head by a guiding rod that controls his head, neck, and ear movements. The fluidity with which the horse puppets, particularly, moved provided graceful and naturalistic authenticity to the production, as did some of the horses' more menacing movements as they reared-up out of disturbance and were mounted by other actors.

Another captivating feature of the production was the use of the expanse of a rigid sliver of white material that spanned the length of the middle portion of a black screen at the back of the stage. Throughout the production, it becomes apparent that this white material symbolizes a ripped-out piece of paper from the sketchbook of a British major who takes care of Joey in his beginning experiences in the war and who enjoys making drawings. While this white screen was used primarily to show pencil-like drawings of locales and to indicate the passage of time within the story as well as the changing of cities and countries, it also provided unnerving moving images, such as a spray of machine gun bullets that correlated with the battle scene then appearing on the stage, or it could also depict seeping red blood as the story's human hero is wounded.

To assuage the distressing impact of the intense battle scenes and plentiful moments of emotional strife, the play offered a satisfying amount of humorous instances - the recurring character of the Narracott's goose who obstinately and unfailingly attempts to enter the household, forever to be forbidden admittance, and always staring in huffy confusion at the firmly closed door after it has been slammed shut just as he tries to enter; the tenderly innocent interaction between Joey and Albert, as the former mischievously picks up Albert's cap and as the latter, in a moment of early desperation when attempting to gain Joey's trust and obedience, thrusts his own head into Joey's feed bucket to show him its proper use. Moments of endearing comedy also derived from the shoddy communication between the British and German troops when they would come face-to-face and find their language barriers an irritating obstacle. In one such occasion, an Irish soldier is ordered to confront a German soldier to settle an argument about the rightful ownership of Joey, who both sides could use. When the German soldier attempts to ask the Irishman if he would like to engage in a coin toss for Joey, they make a spectacle of trying to understand each other, all of which results in the Irishman recommending they play Heads-or-Tails, thinking he had thought of the idea first. Never do the European languages involved in the story prove detrimental to the audience's understanding of a scene; each scene is performed in English but is meant to be understood as spoken in the corresponding foreign tongue, heard by the uncomprehending ear of a foreign soldier or civilian.

Fans of the novel may be interested to know that the play does not fully follow the events as depicted in the book, but the production most assuredly provides the heart with an enormously emotionally gripping and visually stunning first-class theatrical experience.

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