If theater is a conspiracy of imagination between actors and audience, one of this season’s deepest collusions happens with “War Horse,” the Tony Award winner that opened Wednesday at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theatre.
We can clearly see the actors as they manipulate life-sized puppet horses in the play, which is adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 book and which pre-dates the 2011 film by Steven Spielberg.
Yet, through a battery of realistic equine movements such as ear flicks, grass-munching and trotting, coupled with horse vocalizations, these puppet horses rear to moving life.
Even if one is not a horse lover, this show is well worth the trip to the Orpheum,
“War Horse” is, broadly speaking, a love story between a human and a horse. Set just before and during World War I, it revolves around English teenager Albert Narracott’s (Alex Morf) pursuit of his horse, Joey (manipulated by Chris Mai, Harlan Bengel and Rob Laqui), who was sold to the military by Albert’s alcohol-swilling father, Ted (Todd Cerveris).
Even though underage, Albert enlists in the army in order to find Joey. He experiences the exploding horrors of battle.
This tour production, directed by Bijan Sheibani, is scaled down from the Broadway version. Gone is an iconic bit of staging where the warring sides slide together, in a feat of triumphant stagecraft, like the barricades in “Les Misérables” or two space ships docking.
This version employs a broader array of animation and projections (by 59 Productions). But the body count is still high and the overall effect is very compelling.
While this show is a marvel of theater’s power, it made me feel uneasy, too. I cared more about the well-being of puppet horses, designed by Handspring Puppet Company and fashioned from cane, gauze and aluminum, than about the soldiers taking bullets and dying spectacularly in front of me.
That’s a credit to a show whose pre-recorded score, effects such as fog and in-the-moment performances help to create a cinematic work onstage.
Actor Morf, a St. Olaf grad who cut his teeth at the Children’s and Frank theaters, imbues Albert with honesty and openness. His Albert is touching. Cerveris’ Ted is a bit of a stumblebum whose performance, while effective, does not engender empathy.
Andrew May, who plays German deserter Captain Friedrich Muller, delivers a gorgeous performance. He wears his conscience and his doubts on his sleeves. Lavita Shaurice, who plays Emilie in a bit of colorblind casting, does a gorgeous job with this French farmgirl.
Their performances help to make “War Horse” a show where large spectacle gives way to real feeling.