War Horse at the Kennedy Center: Really?

 

For some reason a show always looses a little sparkle when it is on tour but either the touring version of War Horse now playing at the Kennedy Center  Opera House is way off the standard or I am simply the heartless bitch my ex-husband says I am. There is a slim chance that both of these factors come into play or perhaps it was just an off night, but truly, folks, I just don’t get how this show received FIVE Tony Awards last year – particularly for Best Play.

Yes, the  puppets were fascinating, particularly the two full out horse puppets of Topthorn and Joey. The simplicity of the props was marvelous, like how two twelve foot pieces of metal became the bow of a boat then the landing plank. If  the play didn’t win a Tony for its simple yet slick  lighting, then by golly the theatre gods must be on a major snooze fest. But the story is weak. We’ve seen most of it before in classics like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague – War Horse lacks the fresh twist that would truly make it great in my opinion. The majority of the characters were cliche and one dimensional i.e.. the irresponsible drunk Irish father, the ever suffering mother, the boy who develops an unhealthy attachment to his horse. For whatever reason I failed to connect with any of them.  And it was with the rare exception overacted to hell. Then there were the tiresome, schmaltzy, sad, Irishy ballads that are sung throughout the show.  Simply too much forced sentiment for me.

The thing that grated on me exceedingly, however, is probably something that most audience members would miss- the horse’s social behavior was that of dogs rather than horses and the characters who were supposed to know something about horses behaved like they had never been around a horse in their lives.  Joey and Topthorn leap around like St. Barnards in a scene where they are first put in a paddock together.  Horses, which are herd animals by nature, have a very distinct physicality when first meeting and establishing dominance in the herd.  They use their heads to communicate for the most part but these horses were bending their knees and lowering their entire front torso’s like dogs preparing to attack. Maybe this had something to do with physical limitations of the puppets themselves but it was distracting.

There was also a lot of slapping unfamiliar tack on horses which one would never do unless someone wanted  a good hard equine kick in the teeth. Albert is so spastic around Joey in the beginning there is very little reason to believe the colt would ever get close to him much less be eating out of a bucket within inches of him within minutes.  If the show is about a horse then I really need the horse to be like a horse in order to buy in.

Plus the horse puppets were built with the girth of draft horses rather than thoroughbreds.  I know this is out of necessity – a wide girth is needed to support the weight of the actors who ride the puppets- but when Joey is asked to pull the plow and it is supposed to be difficult for this huge horse I thought it rather amusing.

What did work for me is Friedrich the German officer with a heart. He seemed to have the most depth as a character and the actor was marvelous providing the right balance of military man to good guy to make me sympathetic to Friedrich (I would name the actor but I left my program in DC- sorry).

The use of a big screen that resembled a tear from a book page across the top of the stage was used to good effect to depict setting as various images were projected throughout the show.  This effect combined with the simplicity of the props, although effective, gave me the impression that the bulk of the production money was spent on the puppets and the production team had to think of something inexpensive to use for sets and props. As I said, the puppets were marvelous. The puppeteers, who I learned are dancers trained to use these particular puppets rather than professional puppeteers, seemed to disappear somehow from our view and that was cool.  I loved how things seemed to appear out of nothing quite often as well – a staging/lighting trick that really worked.

Personally, I prefer convincing acting, strong, inventive story lines and mulit-dimensional characters to what was depicted in this play. But if War Horse is the kind of show gets people to go to the theatre then I am all for it.  Perhaps it will whet the popular appetite for more live performance causing other more worthy shows to get some attention.

 

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