‘War Horse’ at The Kennedy Center by Amanda Gunther

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In the midst of war and a future uncertain comes a story of bravery, loyalty and companionship as The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts proudly presents the National Theatre of Great Britain and Bob Boyett’s production of War Horse. Winner of five Tony Awards in 2011 —  including Best Play —  this incredible stage spectacular, based on the beloved novel by Michael Morpurgo, will gallop with ease into the hearts of all who see it. With breath-taking puppetry, stirring music, and stellar acting this show is sure to win audience approval without a doubt.

Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui (Joey). Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Directed by Bijan Sheibani based on the original Tony Award-winning direction by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, the production is a larger than life sensation that will leave the audience moved to tears of compassionate sorrow and elated joy. War Horse is the story of a young Albert and his horse, Joey —  a high-spirited thoroughbred whom he loves very much. When the horse becomes enlisted to fight for the English in World War I, the pair are torn apart. Albert makes a vow to find Joey and bring him home again but is too young to enlist in the war. While his owner embarks on a treacherous mission to find him, Joey encounters enemy crossfire and is thrown into the fray, forced to serve both sides of the war before landing in no man’s land. The heart of the show explodes with life-sized horses which bring the breathing, galloping, charging equine beings to thrilling life upon the stage.

In association with Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, the puppeteers who perform as the horses in this show are nothing short of amazing. Each full grown horse takes 3 puppeteers to master it — one on the head and two in the body. The movements of these horse-puppets become so fluid and life like; from the subtle twitches of their ears, to the flips and swishes of their tails that you completely lose sight of them being puppets and believe the illusion of live horses on stage. When they gallop and trot, combined with the whinnies and nickers; this equine puppets becomes the real deal right before your eyes.

Teaming together to operate Joey are puppeteers Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui. Together these three performers give the horse a strong personality that is portrayed through gestures sound and movements. He wears his majesty just as tall as the horse born and raised for the army, Topthorn (Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns, and Gregory Manley). These two horses buck heads at first; and one of the most intense scenes in the show occurs during their initial standoff — just Joey and Topthorn on stage, fighting for the position of dominance, biting and kicking at one another, circling each other in a mad and enchanting trance.

There is not a moment of this show where you are not gripped by the passionate and stirring emotions of this production  on the edge of your seat with the thrill of anticipation. Song Maker John Tams with Composer Adrian Sutton draw forth an incredible combination of music to further enhance the tumultuous waves of emotions that run strong throughout this show. Many of the scenes are interrupted by a haunting song, performed by Song Man John Milosich, his melodic voice belaying innocence and hope when there may otherwise seem to be none. Your heart will swell with the crescendos of the music during key moments.

Such beauty and amazement is found all throughout the production; the spectacle of the ever changing scenes without having to rely on large set and prop pieces is ingenious. 59 Productions provides the animated pictures and projections that display across what appears to be a ripped sheet of paper; moving the scenes along with graphically stunning precision and intricate detail that would get lost in the rapid pace changes if it were laid out in physical set pieces.

Not a single moment in this production will pass without notice, each one a unique memory. The profound struggle of watching Joey try to plow a field with the whole town leading him on, or the moment when the horses and the soldiers meet on-coming machine guns for the first time after landing in France to fight the Germans. Ever moment is executed to perfection.

And while the horses may be the main focus of this performance; the human actors are superior performance creatures as well. The intense level of passion that Albert (Andrew Veenstra) exudes, especially when communicating and interacting with Joey is astonishing. Veenstra ensures that the audience feels his struggles; makes everyone cry with the sorrows of missing Joey, and the agony of being torn apart from your best and only friend. He has moments of hilarity, partnered off during his war scenes with his comrade David (Alex Morf) who makes a great sounding board for his plethora of outwardly expressed emotions.

Captain Friedrich Muller (Andrew May) gives an equally sensational performance, showing just as much compassion for Topthorn as Albert does for Joey; his deeply torn confliction about the war echoing resolutely in his character’s shifts in judgment throughout the production. May and Veenstra may have different storylines as the show progresses but their convictions of loving their horses are the same strong and unwavering solidarity; a bond shared and echoed throughout their sentiments.

War Horse encompasses a great deal of breath-taking feats; and is a show not to be missed. It will easily touch your heart, leaving not a dry eye in the house; War Horse is a phenomenal show taking the expectations of theatre to new heights with its incredible spectacle and heart-wrenching plot; a show that is well-worth waiting for.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui. (Joey). Photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

War Horse plays through November 11, 2012 in The Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (202) 467-4600, or by purchasing them online.