War Horse Is a Cartoon for the Stage
Given the hype surrounding War Horse, it's easy to forget that it is essentially a play for children. Its World War I backdrop, its six Tonys (including best play and best direction, plus fistfuls of other awards), its Oscar-nominated film version—you'd think it was spawned from an adult drama like August: Osage County and not a young-adult novel from 1982.
But its origins come galloping home when you're sitting in the theater, noting the flatness of the characters, the predictability of the plot, and that the evening's biggest laughs go to a cheeky goose-puppet that wants to go into a farmhouse but repeatedly has the door slammed in its face. War Horse is no Animal Farm or Charlotte's Web. It's driven not by surprises or character but by impressive special effects, including horse-puppets made from leather, steel, and aircraft cable, and a ribbon of screen that provides animated sketches of whatever setting we're in, from bucolic England to barbed wire and exploding bodies at Verdun. War Horse is a cartoon for the stage.
Still, (some) adults love it, so it's on a national tour, current stop Seattle, after popular runs in London and New York. Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, sneaked into a public theater, reportedly for the first time in years, to see it on the West End.
The story, in brief: A farmer with a drinking problem buys a horse for too much money at an auction to spite a rival. His young son bonds with the horse and saves it from being sold off by teaching it how to plow to settle a bet. The horse, named Joey, gets conscripted. The boy joins the military to find Joey. The two young creatures search for each other through the chaos of war, meet good Germans and bad Germans, have traumas, and... you can guess what happens.
The design (by Rae Smith and a battalion of associates) and the puppetry (by Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town) are the stars of War Horse. As every other review will tell you, too, the leading equines, with the help of masterful puppeteers, snort, rear up, and gallop convincingly. Other illusions are more, and charmingly, transparent. For instance, farm boys who've signed up for the war triangulate pieces of fence to form the prow of a boat taking them across the channel. They raise and lower their fence/prow to mimic wave action (and then one of them gets seasick off the side) in a poetic visual allusion to their transition from the English countryside to the turmoil of France.
All this highly polished stagecraft in service of a story that isn't much more sophisticated than an episode of Flipper has a strangely alienating effect, as if you're not actually in the room with the performers. The sensation is not unlike watching Cirque du Soleil, where the performers seem remote—more CGI than human, even from the first few rows. But some people, lots of people, demonstrably love Cirque du Soleil, just like they love CGI. War Horse gives those people what they want.