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All words: Derek Mong

There goes an old saying that “A dog is a man’s best friend.” Well, after witnessing the theatrical spectacle War Horse as part of the Kennedy Center’s 2012-2013 theatre season, I have to disagree.

As a self-proclaimed theatre aficionado, I’d say I am pretty open-minded when it comes to theatre and the myriad subject matters that can be masterfully and creatively presented on a stage. After all, the Kennedy Center’s 2011-2012 season showcased shows that ranged from the outright macabre (The Addams Family) to the downright festive (Memphis). But when I heard that War Horse—a drama about a boy and his love for his horse—would be kicking off my Kennedy Center theatre season, I was skeptical. In fact, when I found out the horses would be played by life-sized puppets, I could only imagine Avenue Q-style Muppets somehow galloping and prancing about the stage in syncopated step. As Shakespeare might put it: nay (or neigh?).

I’m glad that I was completely wrong. While cautiously skeptical stepping into the Kennedy Center’s Opera House to see a show about a boy and his love for his life-sized puppet horse, I left having enjoyed a masterfully presented, imaginative theatrical spectacle about the power of friendship and the sheer waste of man-made war.

The 2011 Tony Award Winner for Best Play, War Horse is set in the heyday of World War I in a small county in England. Act One opens with a young Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) who acquires a horse when his father (Todd Cerveris) wins it during a town auction. When his mother (Angela Reed) threatens to sell the horse to pay the mortgage, Albert befriends Joey and trains him to plow fields. As World War I begins, Albert’s father sells off Joey to the cavalry to Albert’s dismay; the rest of the play follows Albert’s desperate quest to find his best friend Joey, while exploring the timeless motifs of friendship, loyalty, the waste of war, and the loss of innocence.

While the narrative arc of the story is fairly simple, what makes War Horse remarkable is its inspired puppetry and design. Sets are deconstructed and imaginative: steel pipes come to represent ravaged ships, a door frame stands in for a house, and wooden beams held vertically and horizontally become buildings and horse pens. Above center stage floats a large scrim, onto which projections subtly provide historical and geographical context as the story progresses across time and throughout a war-ravaged England, France, and Switzerland. Exposed lights hanging just below the scrim and heavy fog create the illusion of deep layers—allowing for the ensemble and the horses to make magnificent and seamless entrances and exits. These features effortlessly transport the audience from their seats to England during the height of World War I—searing into our minds images that are at once magical and haunting. It is no surprise that, in addition to Best Play, War Horse also won the 2011 Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Play and Best Scenic Design of a Play. War Horse is simply visual design at its finest.

The iconic trademark of the show—life-sized puppet horses created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company—also cannot be understated. Three masterful puppeteers navigate the complex nuances of a horse’s movement, providing an intricate and lifelike portrayal of their behavior. It’s surprising how much emotion these puppeteers can convey through their body language alone. At times, the performance is so masterfully executed that it becomes difficult to remember that the horses are, in fact, puppets. Witnessing the show’s dozens of puppeteers maneuver these 10-foot-tall horse puppets is like witnessing a lyrical, contemporary dance routine; their animations give these otherwise empty shells a lifelike dignity and soul. This natural quality helps to make Andrew Veenstra’s interpretation of his character Albert Narracott truly remarkable: his stage presence and youthful charisma translate convincingly into a powerful portrayal of a boy who genuinely considers his horse his best friend.

War Horse plays at the Kennedy Center until November 11, 2012. Check out www.kennedy-center.org to pick up your tickets today.