There are human actors, costumes, a plot and dialogue (some of it quite funny) in the play War Horse, but here's a dare: See it and try to not find yourself only talking about the horses and the other animal puppets. But mostly, the horses.
They truly are a thing of beauty.
Adapted by Nick Stafford from the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse the play opened in London in 2007, and then on Broadway in 2011, earning it that year's Tony Award for best play. Now on a U.S. tour, it's playing two weeks at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House in Dallas.
The story begins in 1912 in Devon, England, as a wild foal is captured and then auctioned, and a gambling farmer, Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox) wins him, much to the chagrin of his wife, Rose (Angela Reed). Their 16-year-old son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), falls in love with this creature. He trains the foal, Joey, and their bond is undeniable. Billy sells Joey to the army in 1914, as he's needed in the just-started World War I, and Joey is taken to France to help fight the Germans. Distraught, Albert runs away to find him.
Script-wise, War Horse is nothing to send you galloping home having seen a tightly drawn play. The ecstatic result you'll feel at the end happens because of the magnificent puppets. There are various birds (vultures, songbirds and one sassy goose), but it's the horses, of courses, that make this a ticket worth buying -- once for you, and a few more times as early Christmas presents for your friends and family. They won't require anything more.
Designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, Joey and his full-grown-horse co-star, Topthorn, are life-size, graceful creations each puppeteered by three humans (Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui for the red thoroughbred Joey; and Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti and Aaron Haskell for the black beauty Topthorn).
Puppets whose manipulators are in view of the audience (such as in bunraku, the closest style to what we get here) are a success when you stop noticing their humans. That happens surprisingly soon here. Almost immediately. The puppeteers, in costumes of the era like the other actors playing human characters, move fluidly and cohesively as one gorgeous beast, which is a feat when you consider that the horse is exceedingly graceful for such a large mammal. The trio make the equine sounds together, and give Joey a distinct personality through movements of the ears, tail and head.
"Wowza" scenic elements (by Rae Smith); a swelling, cinematic sound design (by Christopher Shutt); and effective projections are part of the magic. Veenstra, Reed and Andrew May as a German officer who helps the horses through part of the journey all give affecting performances, and really, without the humans you'd merely have a display of innovative puppetry.
Still, the play wouldn't be nearly as successful or popular without the sharp design and effortless maneuverability of the horse puppets. There's an anti-war story here, but the bigger theme is the love story between man and animal. And ultimately, between audience and theatricality.