Friday, December 21, 2012

Mane Attraction: 'War Horse' Dazzles By Mastering the Art of Horseplay -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

War Horse
by Nick Stafford
directed by Bijan Sheibani
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru January 5, 2013

Although nearly a full year has elapsed since I saw the movie version of War Horse, I wish I had not seen it before seeing the stage version, which I did Wednesday night at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace.

I had read nothing but rave reviews about play—written by Nick Stafford, adapted from a best-selling 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo—since it opened in London in 2007 (where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play) and then on Broadway in 2011 (where it earned the Tony).

The show proved so popular that snagging a ticket proved an impossibility for me in both New York and London. When the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, was released around Christmas 2011, I didn’t yet know the play would be coming to Chicago a year later and, figuring it was a story worth knowing about, I saw the film.

Though reviews for the film—which used real horses rather than the life-size horse “puppets” imaginatively employed onstage—weren’t as unanimously glorious as for the play, they were generally strong and the movie did earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I liked the film sufficiently for it to have been worthwhile at the time, though I felt it suffered from an overdose of Spielbergian sentimentality and schmaltz.

Cut to Wednesday night, when just a day after seeing The Book of Mormon (which I had previously seen on Broadway), I entered the Cadillac Palace with even greater anticipation—as much as I can recall for any non-musical play.

And in large part, I was blown away.

Referring to the horses as puppets doesn’t quite feel apt, as though I love the Muppets and their Sesame Street/Avenue Q brethren, the way Joey (the main horse) and others were brought to life was something else entirely, even a step beyond the wonders of The Lion King onstage.

While the horses didn’t quite look real, they felt like actual creatures—perhaps even more so—with their movements, gestures and, yes, personalities masterfully embodied by the puppeteers.

These miraculous puppets, with at times up to four full-size horses onstage simultaneously, were created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, and were well-accompanied by a beautifully hand-drawn digital backdrop which served to fill in any blanks as to times, places and landscapes.

Thanks to the puppets, the way they looked and moved, the innovative & tasteful digital scenery and fine acting—including by Andrew Veenstra as Albert, the teenager who owns Joey—it is without intended hyperbole that I say that War Horse is the most imaginatively staged work of dramatic fiction I have ever seen.

As such, this is very much a recommendation that if you can see it, you should—and based on the substantially undersold balcony Wednesday, you should readily be able to score tickets. Especially given its source novel, it’s worth noting that the show should be compelling for any non-overly sheltered kids in junior high or above.

But likely exacerbated by my knowing most of the key plot points due to having seen the movie, the play itself didn’t seem quite as brilliant as its enactment. The story of Joey being “drafted” into the British army for World War I, his separation from Albert (who subsequently joins the fight himself) and the atrocities both horse and man encounter is certainly substantive and rather moving. Yet I didn’t find it entirely riveting—again, likely because I wasn’t much surprised—and at a few points the 2-1/2 hour play even seemed to drag. It was also apparent that, while the play is better than the movie, not all the oversentimentality was Spielberg’s doing.

I have friends who will be seeing the show shortly without having seen the movie (nor read the book) and I’ll be curious to hear if they found the plotline itself slightly more captivating than I did.

But this quibbling is mainly to explain why I didn’t give @@@@@ to a show that seemingly has earned perfect marks from everyone else.

Coincidentally, my regard for War Horse as a stage work is somewhat akin to my regard for another Spielberg movie, Lincoln. I certainly wouldn’t say that Lincoln, as a whole, was bad, it just wasn’t quite as great as I was expecting. But Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was absolutely phenomenal and makes the movie worth seeing.

Even more so, the puppetry of War Horse is so amazing—and per reports, so closely replicated in the touring version to what the West End and Broadway saw—that this is a show not to be missed. Especially as even if a future local production isn’t entirely unfathomable, the likely drop in puppetry and production values will greatly diminish what truly makes this show special.

So if you can, see War Horse.

Now. Onstage. In Chicago.

Even if you’ve already seen the movie.

But especially if you haven’t.

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