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Posted: September 27, 2012 8:33 p.m.

‘War Horse’ play worth the hype

Courtesy of Brinkhoff/Mögenburg/

Albert with his horse Joey, the star of the play.

In a story centered around relationships, it's the relationship between the audience and the cast that makes this play so engaging and globally recognized.

"War Horse" came galloping into Atlanta with much fanfare. The Tony Award winning production - a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II, recently shown at her Diamond Jubilee - and captured the audience's attention almost immediately, with heartfelt performances by the cast members.

Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's novel, the play moves from picturesque rural England to the blood-splattering trenches of World War I.

The play's star, a horse named Joey, is introduced as a foal, grazing through Devon leaning over to taste the grass with his ears twitching, stomach bloating and contracting and tail swishing with the breeze of the English countryside. Joey continues to melt the hearts of the audience as he meets Albert, the lead human role.

Joey and Albert bond - both emotionally and playfully - in front of the massive Fox Theater, better suited for a full fledged production than a typical play, (which is a great fit for the epic production which is "War Horse"). The scene peaks when the foal, which appears on stage as a mechanical horse, breaks apart to reveal a massive and masterful full-grown Joey.

The acting, music and scenery all work to make this a memorable moment, but it is Joey that makes it mesmerizing.

The star of the show is in fact a 100-pound aluminum framed puppet designed by Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa and operated by three puppeteers on stage dressed in the same period-era costumes as the rest of the cast to blend in rather than stand out as just puppet operators.

As the foal heads toward the back of the large stage the horse and puppeteers head into brightly lit background only to split apart as Joey comes rushing onto the stage as a grown, galloping stallion. With his tail twitching, his front hooves rearing in celebration and his puppeteers neighing at that moment the steel composite materials and fabric transfer into Joey as the audience embarks on his highs and lows throughout the next two hours.

The steel-framed and courage-and-inspiration souled Joey is the heart of the story as he embarks on a journey to become part of Albert's life before being forced into service in World War I. There, the tales of his courage changes from that of trust to survival as he deals with machine gun fire, barbed wire, friendly and enemy soldiers all in the foreground of a well-told story of relationships, courage and how those aspects are the foundation for a satisfying journey.

Joey moves on from learning lessons ranging from trust to how to be harnessed from Albert, to teaching those things himself to the play's other top-billed horse character. He then overcomes struggles and meets other characters who are also fighting to sustain their journeys through relationships developed outside the play's four-year timeline or during it.

Along the way, all the characters deliver a drama that moves "War Horse" beyond just puppets and acting and into something that had the Fabulous Fox cheering, laughing, clapping and crying in ways that Steven Spielberg couldn't manage in his Oscar-nominated film adaptation of the same name.

Both the film and the play make Joey the centralized character of an epic story; however, the play pulls it off even better than the real horses used on the big screen, and that is what moves "War Horse" from a great play to an epic production.

While watching Joey at the movie theater, one just sees another actor matched with special effects. But watching Joey on stage one sees actors and effects combined to make something amazing.

As Joey reaches his climactic moment, the emotions of the characters, both human and human-operated, jump off the stage as their relationships are displayed and the one expertly developed the audience and Joey, the star it has come to see is rewarded.

 

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