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Powerful Puppetry but Caution with Kids: Review of 'War Horse'

war-horseThe First World War marked the advent of machinery to bring unprecedented death and destruction to the battlefield. War Horse, a new production that plays at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle through February 24, uses stagecraft and miraculous puppetry to bring the powerful emotions of that horror to the stage.

War Horse, based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, is the story of the extraordinary journey of a cavalry horse caught in that war. It was adapted for the stage by the National Theater of Great Britain and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. It's been a smash hit in London and New York and the Seattle production is based on the original staging — including the astonishing Handspring puppets.

The life-size horse puppets that dominate this story go so far beyond traditional puppetry that we may have to invent a new term for what the Handspring Company has achieved. The horses are made from bent cane, fabric, and leather and are operated by three people. They interact with the actors and each other in realistic ways. Characters ride them around the stage. The work the puppeteers are doing is essentially modern dance.

The most magical moments in the show arrive when the human characters are off-stage and the puppets are the focus. The illusion of life is so powerful that it's easy to suspend your disbelief and see them as actual horses — horses that convey emotion. It's the magic of puppetry taken to the extreme. It doesn't end with the horses: Crowd-pleasing comic relief is provided by the Goose. And terrifying machines of war come to life and rumble across the stage.

The challenge, though, is for the live actors to interact effectively with these mechanical marvels, a side of the show that has mixed results. Highlights of the acting include Alex Morf as Sergeant Thunder, who is consistently entertaining and brings much-needed humor to the second act, and Andrew May, who helps us connect with the sympathetic German cavalry officer Friedrich Muller.

And a big question remains: Astonishing puppetry aside, is this a good show for kids? National Theater artistic director Nicholas Hytner believes so. He says, “[War Horse] was always conceived as a play for family. Actually, I think the ideal audience includes children as young as 10. Yes, people and animals get killed, that’s something that happens in war. It’s not something to be shielded from."

In response to this, I would strongly caution parents to think carefully about what their kids can handle. People and animals do get killed, and it happens on stage. The music, sound, and staging all add to the powerful and at times nightmarish emotional impact. The production effectively recreates the battlefields of World War I on a bare stage and nothing is hidden.

If you go ...

When and where: War Horse is at the Paramount Theatre through Feb. 24. The show is 2.5 hours long with a 15-minute intermission and typically starts around 7:30 p.m. There are matinees on Saturdays.

Tickets: Prices start at $23.75. Buy tickets and find out more at stgpresents.com.

jak_headshot_da_1002About the author: John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.

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