Yes it’s about the horrors of war, but equally about the magic of theater.
“War Horse” is the first nonmusical to run as part of The Smith Center’s Broadway series, and a fascinating reminder that theater once was the realm of imagination more than technology.
The title character — we quickly come to know him as Joey — is a life-sized puppet that’s in one sense abstract. He has a cane exoskeleton instead of a realistic hide, and the two people operating him from within wear boots to match the other cast members, rather than some black-bodysuited attempt to conceal themselves.
And yet you can see and hear the horse pant from exertion, and observe every nuance in the fluid way he moves, reacting to acts of both kindness and cruelty.
This careful balance of literal detail with the power of suggestion ripples out to the larger work.
The expansive World War I saga unfolds on a black and often dim stage without defined sets, but with animated scrim projections and realistic props — and gunfire — to augment the innovative puppetry.
The National Theatre of Great Britain made this leap from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel for young readers. It was equally bold in its own approach, with the horse telling the story from a first-person perspective. Steven Spielberg’s movie turned out to be the most prosaic venture of the three.
The storytelling here in this national tour of the 2007 hit is more amazing than the story itself.
The dialogue doesn’t quite hold its own with the poetry of the stagecraft in Nick Stafford’s adaptation, which uses the boy-and-his-dog genre of “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” to guide modern audiences through the human nightmare of World War I.
An ensemble cast — including a singer of folk-song laments (John Milosich) — follows Joey’s path from foal to calvary horse on both sides of the battle lines.
The journey begins in an English village in 1912 and ends after Armistice Day six years later.
Joey turns out to be more convincing than the human half of the couple, Albert, played by an extremely earnest Michael Wyatt Cox. He doesn’t quite pull off the transformation from naive 16-year-old to battle-scarred adult that’s supposed to be as interesting as the equine star.
The play does spend more time than the book developing the early bond between Albert and Joey, who comes home to the family farm as the result of a family-pride purchase his troubled father (Gene Gillette) can’t really afford.
The bet that tames Joey from racer to plow horse makes an extended sequence of a scene that takes all of two pages in the novel.
That makes it more wrenching when the father sells Joey to the cavalry, leading to new bonds with both a fellow horse and with the officer (Brendan Murray) who rides him into battle.
By the time Albert enlists and joins the fight in the trenches — if only to find his horse — Joey is in German hands, pulling ambulances of wounded soldiers.
This second-act stretch on a commandeered French farm lets the play make its strongest, if familiar statements about soldiers on opposite sides of battle being more alike than different.
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” says the German officer (Andrew May) who becomes Joey’s new caretaker. “I’m dead behind the eyes.”
The Brits do have that knack for leavening life-and-death situations with humor. It rescues the war-movie familiarity of Albert’s front-line rapport with his mate David (Andy Truschinski) and the climactic, metaphoric meeting of two soldiers in “no man’s land” to determine Joey’s fate.
But it’s more about the collective journey, unfolding in two hours and 10 minutes (not counting an intermission), than the stops along the way.
The cast works more to be a convincing ensemble instead of vying for showy moments in a work where the puppets have their own “director of movement and horse choreography” (Toby Sedgwick).
(The occasional inability to make out the dialogue could have been due to thick British accents, opening-night sound adjustments, a dead zone in the auditorium or a combination of the three.)
And to say the cinematic flow and the work of the Handspring Puppet Company are the compelling forces at work here isn’t to say they aren’t enough.
In Las Vegas especially, we’ve seen what automated scenery and human acrobatics can do, and how illusions can fool us.
“War Horse” frees our imaginations to buy willingly into a illusion with no mystery. And it’s quite a ride when we do.
Contact Mike Weatherford at mweatherford @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.