Saturday, July 30, 2011

Theater Review: War Horse

For a long stretch, almost 25 minutes, at the beginning of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), we’re looking at the chaotic depiction of piercing horror that defines the blight and the futility of war. It’s D-Day, the invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose black-and-white images of the death camps in Schindler’s List continues to haunt, uses his camera here as if he were filming a documentary. The carnage he captures on Omaha Beach is terrifying, grim. And the colors are so diffused and misty that the red blood appears brighter, more startling. We want to -- we try to -- resist, to recoil, to avert our eyes; however, the direction and camerawork are so expert at capturing the annihilation that we continue to watch in horror. This is understandably the most brilliantly wrenching footage of war in a film we’ve ever seen.

I am not surprised that Spielberg, who had much success with the Private Ryan movie, is now filming War Horse, this year’s recipient of the Tony Award for best play. War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo and continues to entice enthusiastic audiences at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont. Morpurgo’s work, which is also a sizable success in London, doesn’t resemble anything currently on the Broadway boards. The play’s protagonist, you see, is a horse called Joey; and Joey is essentially a lifelike cane-and-plywood puppet (created by Handspring Puppet Company).

The play, which begins in southwestern England, was artfully adapted from the novel by Nick Strafford and skillfully directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. It introduces us to a 16-year-old lad called Albert (an excellent Seth Numrich) who is told by his usually inebriated, stony-broke father (Boris McGiver) that he must teach the horse, recently won in a bet, how to plow the field. It doesn’t take long at all for the lad and Joey to become attached: “Joey and Albert play./They bond./They fall in love./They go into transition from young Joey to grown Joey. Albert trains Joey to rear up.”

This was a time when horses on the battlefield had not yet been replaced by tanks. And so, when Albert’s father surreptitiously sells the horse to the Army, the youngster feels irreversibly bruised, lies about his age and, propelled by a profound love for the animal, volunteers his service, too, so that he might search for his treasured Joey. We watch attentively as young Albert, now a member of the calvary, heads for the French battlefields, where soldiers fight the enemy on horseback for what was most likely the last time. The battles, conjured by Paule Constable’s strikingly brilliant flashes of light and Christopher Shutt’s startlingly effective sound design, are horrific, especially when the boy endures distressing setbacks, including the deaths of fellow soldiers.

Nothing in the play is so powerful and stunningly directed as the battle scenes. And the production certainly does provide several harrowing moments here. We care, of course, about the human sacrifices that were made; however, the work is written and staged in a way that makes us appear to focus on the pain and deaths of the animals. In one memorable scene, for example, a horse is trapped in barbed wire. The two opposing teams frantically wave white flags to halt the fighting so that the snared animal might be dislodged. When the rescue succeeds, you can sense and feel the collective relief in the audience.

The dialogue is occasionally trite, not much different from those “B” war films we’d see at the local cinema years ago. Sometimes, too, the German soldiers are as sympathetically depicted as the British. However, the play is primarily about a boy’s love for his horse. And you sense the audience’s elation when, near the play’s end, Albert discovers Joey just seconds before the tired, wounded horse was to be executed. When the lad sees what’s about to occur, he shouts: “Don’t off him! Don’t off the bon horse.”

This is, admittedly, shamelessly sentimental stuff, of course, but it is, after all, based on a children’s story. At curtain calls, all 39 actors, some of whom also help move Rae Smith’s impressive sets during the performance, appear to be pleased by the appreciative, enthusiastic response of a grateful audience. Let us hope that in Mr. Spielberg’s inventively directorial hands War Horse on film will also be captivatingly commendable.