Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Horse Named Joey: A High-Tech Replay Of “Lassie, Come Home”

This afternoon, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to see The National Theatre Of Great Britain’s production of “War Horse”, a 2007 stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel. Minneapolis is but one stop on the production’s extensive North American tour, ongoing since last year. (The production ran 22 months in New York.)

“War Horse” is notable because of its stagecraft. Life-size puppetry is used—successfully—to present the story of a horse named Joey, sold by its owner to the British Army for military use in France during World War I.

Projections, videos, choreography, any and all devices conceivable by sound and lighting designers: all are called upon to present a fluid, even cinematic, presentation of the tale. To this mixture is added bucket after bucket of Celtic music.

“War Horse” is a rather complicated yet fundamentally one-dimensional story. Plot is everything as Joey proceeds through his countless—and credulity-straining—adventures before reuniting with the boy he loves. Designed for presentation to adult audiences, “War Horse” nonetheless remains ruthlessly a vehicle for children; it is a high-tech replay of “Lassie, Come Home”—in a wartime setting, with Lassie turned into a horse.

One had to respect the stagecraft. It cannot have been easy to portray onstage a horse caught in barbwire in the middle of “No Man’s Land” . . . or a German tank emerging through the mist to gun down British soldiers.

The production cost a mint. The cast was enormous. There must have been 200 technicians hard at work backstage during the performance (the fog machines and smoke machines alone must have kept at least 20 persons busy).

“War Horse” has more to do with circus than theater. Shorn of its elaborate trappings, the play is a mindless—and endless—adventure yarn constructed so as to tug at a twelve-year-old’s heartstrings. I have never seen a more cynical or manipulative play.

We would have taken my nephew to “War Horse”, but the production was recommended for those ten years of age and older.

Having now seen the production, I am glad we left him at home.

The length—two hours and forty-five minutes—would have been a problem for him, and the sound system, loud beyond belief, might have caused him permanent hearing loss.

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