Despite all the buzz to the contrary, you never really forget that the horses in War Horse are puppets — at least I never did. They suggest living creatures, but they don't embody them. You know that Joey, the magnificent chestnut that dominates the action, isn't flesh and blood: You can see the skilled puppeteers manipulating him, the thin supple canes that bend to form his limbs. Sure, when he flicks an ear or tosses that splendid waterfall of a tail, the feeling he communicates is entirely equine. Every now and then, though, when Joey encountered trouble, I found myself wondering fleetingly why the guy standing by his head didn't help.
But that isn't a criticism. It's not as if a live horse would have worked better — and if so, the producers could just have taken a leaf from Radio City Music Hall, which sends a real camel swaying across the stage as part of its Christmas show every year. While that's impressive, it doesn't inspire awe; it just feels like a trick. Joey, the work of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, is no trick. He's a tribute to the power of metaphor and representation. He's hyper-real, horse as archetype, horse as art. And War Horse not only invites us to contemplate the essential equine, it explores the profound mystery of the human-animal bond.
The story begins when Joey, still a leggy foal, is bought by Ted, a Devon farmer, for his son, Albert. Albert loves and tames the animal, the two bond fiercely, and there's a wonderful moment when the foal morphs into a huge and powerful stallion. But Albert's joy in his new companion is shadowed. His father is a drunk, the family poor, his mother ineffectually compassionate. When the first world war breaks out, Ted sells Joey to the army. A kindly lieutenant promises to take care of the horse but is killed in France. So Albert lies about his age, enlists and sets out to find Joey. Some rather unconvincing events ensue involving a kindly German and a little French girl and her mother (this part of the plot never quite gets sewn up), and despite an appealing sequence in which an Irishman and a German rescue a struggling Joey and then toss a coin to see who gets to keep him, most of the characters are stock figures. "Uh-oh," murmured my savvy young companion as a soldier in the trenches fished out a photo of his girlfriend. "He's not going to make it. Girlfriend photo. Dead giveaway."
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through January 20, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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Still, the evening remains breathtaking for so many reasons. The impact of the miraculous horses — and the funny goose, the singing birds, the raptors that descend on the battlefield to feed on corpses — is heightened by Rae Smith's spare and evocative set, an oddly shaped gray-white strip representing the torn page of a sketchbook on which, in another minuet between art and artifice, charcoal sketches morph into photographs, photos into moving images. A lone singer provides a cappella folk songs to haunting effect.
The script tells us that a million horses — almost none of them battle-trained — were taken to France during World War One, and most of them died. A generation of Englishmen died there, too, but there's something about the power, grace and dignity of the animals that makes us understand the bitter futility of war in a new way. When Joey encounters an armored tank, we see the roaring beast through his eyes — and it's heart-stopping. And when four skeletal horses that are clearly being worked to the point of death move slowly across the landscape, the effect is primal.
I returned from War Horse to find my Airedale stretched out on her blanket, asleep. She's a nervous, crazy, playful animal who, at nine years old, still twirls with joy every time I come home and keeps invisible air monsters at bay in the garden with periodic spasms of barking. I knelt by her, felt the muscle at the base of her ears, picked up a paw and bent it, gently trying to understand the articulation of her bones. As always, she accepted my touch with complete trust. And for a few moments, the wonder of it hit me: the understanding this dog and I shared in the face of our profound animal otherness, the miracle of her gentle constant presence in our house.