March 13 2013 12:00 AM

Life-size equine puppets and a cinematic score make “War Horse” a hit

Courtesy photo

Thursday, Dec. 6 — How do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems? Writers have spilled more ink on the topic than blood, looking at war from every conceivable angle. But in “War Horse,” playing through Sunday at the Wharton Center, the subject is seen through the eyes of a horse. This use of an animal protagonist allows you to see war from the perspective of nature — confusing, violent and absolutely pointless. 

In 1914, Joey, a mixed-breed work/riding horse, is purchased on a drunken dare by a farmer in Devon, England. The farmer’s teenage son, Albert, bonds with the horse, and teaches it to plow, making sure it earns its keep. Unfortunately, World War I breaks out and Joey is sold to the army — but he is put under the care of a trusted family friend who promises to watch over him. However, when that man dies and Joey becomes just another horse in the ranks, Albert lies about his age and enlists in the army to bring Joey home.

“War Horse” may be based on a children’s book, but the show is anything but childish. The war sequences play like fever dreams, with action slowed down and sped up to focus on specific moments, to varying degrees of effectiveness. (The element of time is played with extensively in the show, including a horse-on-horse dominance challenge that isn’t exactly as cool as it could have been.) A stripe of a backdrop serves as a makeshift movie screen playing impressionistic war scenes above the action, making up for the non-existent set pieces. And every shot fired makes you jump in your seat — yeah, people die in this story, boys and girls.

Having your main character portrayed as not only an animal but also a puppet requires a healthy dose of willing suspension of disbelief, and fortunately the play’s producers respect the audience in this regard. The horses are strongly rooted in the animal kingdom (no talking animals here), but that also creates a disconnect with the audience. How can you really relate with a horse when you don’t know what it thinks about what’s happening around it? This is compensated with a sweeping cinematic score that really helps guide both the characters and the audience through this emotional journey.

Understandably, operating such massive puppets requires a lot of space on stage and, while the puppets are impressive, the sparse stage forces the audience to fill in a little too much. This show would greatly benefit from a larger stage that would allow more sets to slide into place. Also, while it seems like a relatively straightforward story, the plot still feels muddled for some reason. Elements that work in a children’s book feel episodic on stage. Specifically, the teaching-Joey-to-plow scene seems to go on forever. Also, cutting back and forth between Joey’s changing of hands from company to company and Albert’s journey to find him loses some of the immediacy of Joey’s predicament.

The true stars of the show are, of course, the horse puppets: Joey and his frenemy, a black stallion named Topthorn. The puppeteers convincingly portray every headshake, tail swipe and ear twist, imbuing each animal with the believable breath of life. Topthorn actually gets a little bit of a juicier role, with his cockiness and bravado really coming through in the way he parades across the stage. And after a while, you don’t even have to tune out the puppeteers in order to see the living animals at the heart of the show.