ORLANDO — “War Horse” is a heartbreaking and deeply moving indictment of war, an accomplishment that’s all the more surprising in that the gentle, very sentimental opening leads you to believe the play will hold your hand throughout the entire length of the show — when it doesn’t. You don’t expect the full force and raw intensity of the play’s image of war as a tragic waste of lives and human potential.
But it’s that sadness throughout the play, and unflinching, horrific images of the European battlefield, that make it a more profoundly moving experience by the end. The Touring Broadway production, now playing at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando, is a superb piece of theater that will haunt you long after the lights have come up.
“War Horse,” in fact, is almost like the anti-Broadway event, in that so many of today’s large scale musicals are simply content to make you scream happiness. “War Horse” is also, in many ways, the animal story that offers the exact opposite approach that Disney applied to its beloved feature length animated films like “Bambi” or “The Lion King.”
If it seems traumatic to watch Bambi’s mother get shot by hunters, or Simba’s father get trampled to death, Disney always has a sweet sugar-coated pill for the audience to swallow, with comedic side characters like Thumper or Pumbaa who help make the pain of parental loss go down more smoothly.
In “War Horse,” we keep waiting for that sugar-coated pill to take us back to the sentimental, warm and fuzzy beginning of the show. The fact that it only gets increasingly grim is a testament to stage writers, directors and actors who don’t want us to pretend the ugliness of war simply goes away with a quick scene change.
Adapted by playwright Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” is set in England shortly before the start of the first World War, and opens with an image of freedom in the wild: a foal running across the countryside. The animal is captured, and brought to the town of Devon to be sold at an auction. Ted Narracott is the highest bidder, and his son Arthur is thrilled to have this foal to care for.
The opening scenes are indeed quite moving in the way that the foal initially fears humans for having trapped it, and the way that Arthur so patiently works to build its trust. There are comedic delights in watching Arthur offer to feed the starving foal, only to see it stubbornly refuse to eat from a bucket if the offer is coming from a perceived captor. It’s truly amazing what the play does with puppets of the horses; even with actors guiding their every move, the show manages to give the foal, dubbed Joey, a distinct personality. They become loyal companions.
And so the story moves on, with Joey growing into a majestic horse, and learning to trust and rely on Arthur. When Ted, a drunk prone to violent outbursts, casts a bet that Joey can be taught to plow a field in just a week, devastating Arthur at the possibility of losing him, the play continues its march toward the triumph of their friendship when Joey surprises everyone by helping them win the bet.
And then …. the start of the world war, and Ted’s ill-fated decision to sell Joey to the cavalry for a tidy sum. As the soldiers take Joey away, Arthur is crushed, and ultimately decides to enlist in the fighting, despite the fact that he’s only 16, to try to find Joey. The year is 1914. And the play, from the middle of the first act right to the end, follows the war through Armistice Day in November, 1918. And the sweetness of the early scenes quickly become a fading memory.
Nothing is spared in the play’s brutal depiction of the horrors of war. We watch a solider being shot and killed as he rides Joey, vultures pick at the dead bodies of soldiers, a German tank close in on Joey, and, in one of the film’s most painful scenes, a horse so badly starved and worked to exhaustion that it collapses, leading one of the soldiers to shoot it to put the animal out of its misery … only it doesn’t die, not right away.
The scenes of both soldiers and horses slaughtered on the battlefield sum up the play’s striking message, that in war, lives only have value if they are capable of a full-throated effort toward the fighting. If they demonstrate weakness, they are completely expendable.
And nothing captures this view more vividly than the scene of Joey, caught in razor sharp barbed wire at the battlefield, unable to break free, and slowly bleeding to death. “War Horse” does little to spare us from the agony poor Joey endures.
The show features some wonderful performers, including Andrew Long as Arthur, and Maria Elena Ramirez as his mother, Rose. The life-size puppet horses are brilliantly done as well. But what makes “War Horse” such a memorable play is that it refuses to pull back from the miseries of war that make us flinch, make us gasp, and leave us feeling totally exhausted. The fact that we care so deeply for both Arthur and Joey makes the journey that much more rewarding by the end.
“War Horse” continues this weekend at the Bob Carr at 401 W. Livingston St., with performances today at 2 and 8 p.m., and on Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $41 and higher. Call 407-246-4262 for reservations.
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