Pillbox

War Horse wows with puppets, lighting

War Horse relies heavily on puppets to portray the animals in the story. Puppets such as the one pictured above, designed by Handspring Puppet Company, are unexpectedly expressive and lifelike and contribute to the stunning visuals of the production.  (credit: Courtesy of LindaH via Flickr) War Horse relies heavily on puppets to portray the animals in the story. Puppets such as the one pictured above, designed by Handspring Puppet Company, are unexpectedly expressive and lifelike and contribute to the stunning visuals of the production. (credit: Courtesy of LindaH via Flickr)

Explosions, slow motion, and battle scenes: These are elements one would expect to see in a high-budget action movie rather than on a stage. But last week’s National Theatre of Great Britain production of [ITAL]War Horse[ITAL] at the Benedum Center in Downtown pulled it off to great visual success — without CGI.

The production was infused with so many film-like elements it was hard to believe that the play preceded the Stephen Spielberg film adaptation. The set was minimal, aside from what looked like a torn white strip of paper that stretched across the back of the stage. On this white strip, moving projections of the landscape gave the audience a sense of place and movement and seemed to tread into film-like territory.

[ITAL]War Horse[ITAL] follows the story of English farm boy Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and his horse, Joey. When the first World War breaks out, the two are separated, and the rest of the play follows Albert on his struggle to be reunited with his beloved horse.

In terms of plot, those who had seen the film were at a clear advantage. It was often difficult to follow Joey and Albert through their disjointed wartime misfortunes, with little to connect the events of the drama except the characters themselves. Within the same two hours, the storyline jumps from Albert’s conflict with his drunken coward of a father (Brian Keane) to a German captain (Andrew May)’s decision to desert his troops. All the while, the heavy Cockney and German accents often muddled the dialogue, making it even harder to understand what was going on.

But the stunning visual elements of the play outweighed any plot shortcomings. The horses themselves were easily the most breathtaking part of the show. The Handspring Puppet Company built intricate life-sized mechanisms for the show that very closely replicated the appearance and movements of a horse, from the twitch of its ears to its galloping legs.

Various cast members guided these movements from inside and around the shell of the horse mechanism, and their moves were choreographed by director of movement and horse choreography Toby Sedgwick. In one particularly impressive fight scene, Joey and another horse face off in an aggressive dance of sorts; it was remarkable how seamlessly the cast members were able to step and leap in unison.

The animals were so lifelike that they even provided comic relief throughout the play. Gestures so simple as a sassy flick of Joey’s tail had the audience in stitches, and Albert’s family goose evoked hoots of laughter as it wheeled across the stage, frantically honking and flailing its wings. Most viewers probably would never have guessed that puppets, if designed right, could be so expressive.

In addition to the impressive puppet design, the production made great use of lighting, sound, and movement. The war-front setting for the majority of the film required a lot of creativity when it came to the visuals. In one battle scene, a violent explosion threw a cavalry officer from his horse: With the flashing, strobe-like lights and the use of slow motion as stage crew members carried the officer offstage, the audience was able to imagine the vivid scene.

Despite the impressive visuals, the production certainly wasn’t as sharply realistic as an action movie — but it gave the audience a challenge that few of today’s films present anymore. Modern action movies do all of the imagining for us with their sharp, computer-generated displays of explosions and gore. It was incredible how much the directors of [ITAL]War Horse[ITAL] were able to pull off with such limited technology — but even the less realistic or believable elements had artistic merit of their own.