EDITOR’S NOTE: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 2nd Triangle Theater Review preview and Oct. 5th interview with John Milosich, both by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-gallop-into-durham-on-tuesday-oct-2nd-for-eight-epic-performances-at-dpac/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/tenor-john-milosich-the-song-man-in-war-horse-expresses-the-zeitgeist-of-the-moment-at-dpac/, respectively.
The ingenious Royal National Theatre presentation of War Horse, with its stirring script by Nick Stafford, passionate performances by a charismatic cast, and life-sized horse puppets, will wow Durham Performing Arts Center patrons. Tuesday’s opening-night performance started an hour late — due to unnamed “technical difficulties” — and was marred by minor and easily fixable microphone malfunctions in the final scene. But, overall, War Horse was a triumph — and truly worthy of the lengthy standing ovation that the DPAC audience gave it at the final curtain!
This truly remarkable evening of live theater, superbly staged by Bijan Sheibani, who has adapted Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ Tony Award®-winning direction for the road, unfolds on scenic designer Rae Smith’s simply spectacular set, which took home a Tony of its own for Best Scenic Design. Overhead, against a black backdrop, there is a cream-colored horizontal slash — wide enough to accommodate slides and projections of British cavalry Lieutenant James Nicholls’ evocative sketches of England and France, circa 1912-14, plus more abstract pictures that simulate horrors of battle. These projections facilitate cinematic scene-changes as the action moves from a peaceful farming community in Devon, England, to various shell-pocked battlefields of France.
On Tuesday night, the War Horse cast and crew galloped through this heart-tugging story of a boy and his horse with scarcely a misstep anywhere. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for Young Adults, War Horse combines the coming-of-age story of a horse-crazy English farm boy — 16-year-old Albert Narracott (played with his heart on his sleeve by Andrew Veenstra) — with a potent anti-war history lesson that turns a gimlet eye on the larger drama of the British Empire’s foolhardy plunge into the War to End All Wars, which turned out to be a mere tune-up for World War II (1939-45). But World War I had plenty of horrors of its own, as War Horse graphically reminds us.
Nevertheless, War Horse is, at its heart, an epic love story between Albert and his horse — a half Thoroughbred, half draft horse named Joey — whom the boy meets as a frightened foal (manipulated by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica). Thanks to a foolish bet by his feckless, drunken father, Ted (Todd Cerveris), Albert is first forced to transform Joey — with his hunter’s physique — into a plough horse and later bid the stallion goodbye, after the perpetually cash-strapped Ted Narracott sells him to the cavalry for 100 British pounds.
Albert vows to follow Joey to France, but he is too young to enlist and too well known to the recruiters in his own community to lie about his age. So, he has to leave home and lie to join up with the Devon Yeomanry.
After that enlistment, War Horse alternates between long scenes in the trenches and nightmarish killing fields of France and short vignettes of life in the fertile fields of Devon, where Albert’s father Ted, plucky mother Rose (Angela Reed), and uncle Arthur (Brian Keane) read Albert’s battlefield letters with a growing anxiety that he may suffer the same fate as his cousin Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox).
Ms. Reed and Messrs. Cerveris and Cox create full-blooded, three-dimensional characters. So do Jason Loughlin, who plays the officer and gentleman and gifted amateur artist Lieutenant James Nicholls; Grayson DeJesus, who portrays the impetuous Captain Charles Stewart; and Andrew May, who adds a moving characterization of war-weary German Captain Friedrich Muller, who becomes Joey and especially Topthorne’s benefactor after the vicissitudes of war send them into Kaiser Wilhelm’s camp.
Playing the Song Man, who serves as a sort of narrator for these poignant proceedings, is John Milosich, who makes a big impression in this small but vital role, as he lifts his beautiful voice to sing snatches of the ersatz folk songs crafted by John Tams. The Song Man expresses the zeitgeist of the times, underscores the emotions of the current scene, and propels the play into the next scene.
Three puppeteers from the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, South Africa — Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns, and Gregory Manley — animate the adult, life-size Joey — and three others — John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger — likewise are the “head,” “heart, and “hind” for Joey’s stable mate and best equine friend Topthorne to full, glorious life. It is a wonder — and a fine feat of theatrical magic — that these trios of puppeteers can make these lightweight metal, bamboo, and fabric horses not just prance around the farmyards of Devon and charge six abreast — with two other life-size horses and two half-horses — carrying their riders into the German line.
What makes these horse puppets wonders of the theatrical world is not just their manipulators mastery of equine movement and sounds, but their ability to breathe — which makes even more heart-rending Joey’s mad dash through No Man’s Land and into a thicket of barbed wire, as a rumbling tank and a rain of artillery shells — all his worst nightmares come true with a vengeance — make him frantic to escape from the German lines to the British trenches.
Jessica Krueger’s pixilated performance as the Narracotts’ belligerent Goose, a barnyard bully whom she whisks on and off stage on a wheelbarrow-like contraption — is a welcome bit of comic relief to the sometimes wrenching — but ultimately uplifting — story of War Horse.
In the end, there is only one word that describes the reaction of a typical theatergoer to War Horse, and it is WOW! (in ALL CAPS with a well-earned exclamation point). Don’t miss this high point of the Fall theater season.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 4th Raleigh, NC NBC 17 “My Carolina Today” segment: http://www2.nbc17.com/lifestyles/my-carolina-today/2012/oct/04/1/war-horse-at-dpac-58738-vi-52228/; Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Larissa Mount: http://raleigh.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-Reviews-WAR-HORSE-Delights-as-it-Gallops-into-Durham-20121003#sthash.sCq5kDu0.dpbs; Oct. 3rd Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20350247/article-REVIEW–‘War-Horse’-an-emotional-story-of-humanity, Sept. 28th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20291704/article-The-journey-of-‘War-Horse’, Aug. 17th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/19832197/article-Broadway’s-Tony-winners–‘War-Horse-’-‘Jersey-Boys’-and-‘Million-Dollar-Quartet’-at-DPAC-this-fall and March 14th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/17824398/article-‘War-Horse’-a-feat-of-puppetry? (Note: You must register first to read these articles); Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: Oct. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/10/03/2387869/review-dpacs-war-horse-is-a-hit.html; and Oct. 2nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel interview with Michael Stewart Allen, conducted by Madeline Hurley: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/10/war-horse-qa. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 2nd Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/war-horse-will-gallop-into-durham-on-tuesday-oct-2nd-for-eight-epic-performances-at-dpac/.)
Durham Performing Arts Center presents WAR HORSE at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4, 8 p.m. Oct. 5, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 6, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $24-$79.50 (including fees).
DPAC Box Office: 919/680-ARTS (2787) or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/how_to_buy_tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1732689.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/group_services.
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://youtu.be/iY5YMshpCcw. SERIES: http://www.dpacnc.com/suntrust-broadway-series.
The Novel: http://michaelmorpurgo.com/books/war-horse (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(novel) (Wikipedia).
The Novelist: http://www.michaelmorpurgo.com/ (page on Michael Morpurgo’s website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Morpurgo (Wikipedia).
The Play: http://www.raesmith.co.uk/selected_warhorse.html (set and costume designer Rae Smith’s website), http://warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour (U.S. tour), http://warhorseonbroadway.com/ (on Broadway), http://warhorseonbroadway.com/ (in London), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(play) (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=488127 (Internet Broadway Database).
The Playwright: http://www.theagency.co.uk/clients/clientdisplay.html?viewListing=Mjkx (The Agency) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Stafford (Wikipedia).
Handspring Puppet Company: http://www.handspringpuppet.co.za/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handspring_Puppet_Company (Wikipedia).
Royal National Theatre: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_National_Theatre (official website).
Rae Smith: http://www.raesmith.co.uk/ (official website).
John Milosich: http://www.johnmilosich.com/ (official website).
The Film: http://www.warhorsemovie.com/ (official website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Horse_(film) (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1568911/ (Internet Movie Database).
World War I: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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