It’s make believe.
Of course you know that, watching a magnificent piece of art unfold on stage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. But “War Horse” is so spectacular and the story so deep that reminders come in handy.
“War Horse” is a drama about heart and love; a valentine to the pure love a boy has for his horse and the horse for this boy. It may sound corny yet there is not a milked emotion. Steven Spielberg is turning this into a movie, and one has to wonder if what makes this so very special — the theatricality — will be lost on the big screen.
That does not matter for anyone lucky enough to score a ticket. Here, in the hushed theater, magic occurs.
Metal and leather puppets become so real that even though the audience is always aware that these are indeed puppets, it’s such a captivating show that we need to remind ourselves it is make believe.
The story begins in 1912. In the town square, a pony is up for auction. Two brothers, long at odds — the elder a war hero, the younger a coward — bid against each other for the same pony. The younger, also a drunk, wins after a bidding war that results in the sweet pony fetching the most money ever paid for a horse in the county.
The younger brother’s son, Albert (Seth Numrich) names the pony Joey and they become the best of friends — not in an “Equus” way — truly, simply the best of companions. Joey is half thoroughbred and half draft horse, and grows into a majestic creature.
The horse puppets are so magnificent they require three people to maneuver them. And they are so beautifully crafted, and the sounds, the breaths coming from the horses are so realistic, that it is hard to remember actors make these noises and people crafted these moving sculptures.
Great Britain enters World War I as the horse is sold. Joey is such a fine horse the officers want him. They pay a fair price and he’s off to war. But Albert cannot let his horse go. Though underage, he enlists and endures the war looking for his horse.
Using few props and no backdrops the play evokes the passage of time and countries. This is all done through the brilliance of set designer Rae Smith. Like the horses, the set appears minimalist yet conveys everything.
A suspended screen, resembling a ripped piece of hand-made paper, projects skylines, animation, shooting and bloodshed. Drawings, minimalist and perfect (and also by Smith), are projected onto the screen.
There’s not a moment where the play — written by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris — lags. But the true stars here are the Handspring Puppet Company, the South African company that crafted horses from pieces of leather. Though we see the actors manipulating the horses and, of course we know this is a story, “War Horse” is so completely captivating and so perfectly done we need to remind ourselves that it is indeed make believe.