The PNC Broadway Series presents something different from most of its visiting offerings, a drama, not a musical, a remarkable and unusual stage work in which puppets have major roles. It is Warhorse which originated in England and is derived from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel of the same name, recently adapted into a Steven Spielberg film. The stage version surpasses that.
Adapter Nick Stafford, directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris have made this an enduring work of art, involving Handspring Puppet Company evoking life-size replicas of horses, striding amid something extraordinary, something bound to stir hearts and minds of people of any age. The creators have devised a modern link to the thousand year old Japanese theatre tradition of Bunraku, wherein you see the puppeteers’ magic. This reaches across the ages, as well it should; the horror of war remains the inheritance of more than those one thousand years.
And, if you look at how the word WARHORSE is laid out, note that the first part is the color of blood. So, although the main focus is on the bonds between animals and humans, this also confronts how humans break bonds across boundaries and kill each other. The play powerfully reminds us of what it means for innocent young men and innocent creatures to die in battle.
The production honors its audiences by immediately jumping into the subject without exposition, at the same time reaching into ritual and fable, colored by songs that sound as if they belong to everyday people. Overhead, expressive projections frame the scenes, but in fragments, even as the story-telling gives us all we need to know without having to fill in every detail. Suggestions of scenery and of other creatures seem like living bold strokes of Japanese brush painting. And, to start, a beautiful suggestion of a sweet, fragile colt stands unsteadily in the center of a noisy crowd.
And from there the story moves on. Young Albert Narracott, who lives on a farm in Devon, England, falls in love with that colt which he names Joey. When the First World War begins, Albert’s father sells Joey to the British cavalry. The story then follows Joey and Albert on and off battlefields. Joey is saved from danger several times, especially by a German officer, Captain Friedrich Muller.
Directors Elliott and Morris’ visual concepts, interpreted by tour director Bihan Shelbani, stay amazingly effective with what seem like simple means. They keep the focus where it should be, on humans and animals rather than on effects. At the same time, the magnificent, massive cast is called on to not only portray many different characters but also to manipulate horses, other creatures and scenery. Within this impressive ensemble, Andrew Veenstra always stands out as Albert, with touching innocence and vulnerability. Likewise memorable, Andrew May’s version of Captain Muller has all the passion and war-weariness to superbly define the role. By the way, Andrew May has performed several times at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, including, about a year ago, in Time Stands Still which also deals with the emotional wounds of modern war.
Accents abound. There are those of English people including natives of Devon as well as various others within the Army ranks. The Germans and French speak as if mirroring their own languages, implying that they are not speaking English. You may have trouble understanding everything said, despite good amplification in the sound system at Benedum Center. But what you see tells you everything essential.
You see a masterpiece.
Warhorse continues through Sunday, November 18th at 6:30 at Benedum Center, downtown. Tickets at the Box Office at Theater Square, 655 Penn Avenue, at 412/456-4800 or TrustArts.org. More information also at www.WarHorseOnStage.com.