Theater review: Stagecraft astounds in ‘War Horse’

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Andrew Veenstra as Albert and Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui as Joey in a scene from the play War Horse. (Brinkhoff/M�genburg)

Magnificent staging and excellent ensemble work seamlessly create a world fraught with the dangers of war in the drama War Horse, now playing at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre in Cleveland.

The highly anticipated show, which premiered in London in 2007 and won five Tony Awards on Broadway, exceeds expectations in its North American tour. War Horse combines dramatically high-tech elements in sound, set and lighting with stunning puppetry — an ancient art brought to a new level of artistry to bring huge steeds to life onstage.

The thrilling, life-sized horses Joey and Topthorn are created by Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, which received a Tony for its work. The cane framework shows every contour of the animals, with a georgette fabric “skin’’ beneath.

The 18 puppeteers who operate the horses are the true stars of the show, especially the trios who team up to animate Joey and Topthorn as each animal’s Head, Heart and Hind.

On Tuesday night, the adult horse Joey was operated by the amazingly skilled Jon Hoche, Adam Cunningham and Aaron Haskell, while rival-turned-friend Topthorn was operated by Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger. These puppeteers, who blended in with their period costumes, both created and inhabited the life and spirit of the noble animals.

In this story, young Albert of Devon, England, loves Joey, which his father Ted has bought in a drunken competition with his brother. The earnest teen, played by Alex Morf, trains the wild young foal and earns the creature’s trust. Simply watching the heavy breathing of the skittish foal, operated by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica, is incredible.

This tale, adapted by Nick Stafford from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, begins in 1912 and soon shifts to 1914, at the start of World War I. Joey is sold to the British Army to fight in the cavalry against the Germans in France.

He is captured by the Germans and ends up being pressed into service on both sides of the war. Young Albert goes on a harrowing journey to find him.

The play’s sound design — including heavy artillery effects — plus glaring lights bring alive the terrors a horse would feel when forced into battle.

Even though some scenes begin to feel overly long, the puppeteers are so incredible in making the life-sized beasts live, breathe, whinny and even scream, we as audience members become thoroughly invested in their survival.

The puppeteers’ reverence for their animals is touching: As a horse’s soul leaves him, his three puppeteers slowly back out from his body and file offstage.

Thinking about this dramatic play, I keep coming back to the amazing staging that immerses us in the world of war. When Lt. James Nicholls dies, for example, a puppet representing the glint of artillery hits him while he’s riding Joey, and actor Jason Loughlin is pulled off the horse backward in slow motion by other cast members.

One of the most graphic images in the play comes with the carnage of war, represented by two dead horses littering the front yard of Albert’s house. It’s a juxtaposition that goes straight from a battle scene back to the Narracotts’ home in Devon.

A large set piece stretching across the stage overhead, which looks like a strip of torn paper, serves as a screen upon which everything from sketches of idyllic farmland to animation showing a fleet of ships and hellish war tanks are projected. The well-integrated set piece is key to establishing settings in Rae Smith’s otherwise minimalist design.

Unfortunately, an onstage tank, run by actors and hydraulics, was not seen in Cleveland, reportedly because it did not fit on the Palace Theatre stage. The moment from the movie in which the man-made symbol of war has a standoff with Joey, who represents nature, does not occur. The chaos of the tank is instead seen with overhead animation and swirling actors with instruments of war.

Northeast Ohio native Andrew May plays one of the show’s most likable characters, German Capt. Friedrich Muller. The kind-hearted officer cares for the captured horses and works to save young French girl Emilie.

In multiple moments throughout the play it’s difficult to hear all the dialogue, due to both the actors’ varied accents and competing sound effects, including live singing by John Milosich.

In one of the most horrifying scenes, four actors stretch barbed wire across the stage as Joey becomes entangled in it in no man’s land. That’s followed by a touching moment when both a British and German soldier creep out to the wounded, frightened horse and work together to try to save him.

Their dialogue of misunderstanding as they speak in different languages provides humor, but we know these soldiers’ hearts are in the same place, their common bond being concern for the magnificent, noble Joey.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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