It's funny, though, sometimes when we're actually aware that our collective chains are being yanked, it sort of spoils the fun. Sometimes. Other times, we know full well that the show we're watching is shamelessly tugging at the old heartstrings, and yet we succumb.
War Horse is fairly shameless. And manipulative. And, at times, cheap. And yet it works, and smashingly so. I can't remember the last time I felt so pummeled and yet so emotionally satisfied by a staged production, musical or otherwise. (Although War Horse has quite a bit of music, the show is technically a play.)
The production is the latest in a delightful succession of productions imported from the The National Theatre of Britain, and it shows every sign of becoming a smash hit: the production was originally supposed to play at the Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre through June, but has been extended indefinitely based on boffo box-office sales and a raft of raves from the critics.
From where I sit, the show deserves both its praise and its financial success. Frankly, War Horse is not the deepest play ever to trod the boards. The play is based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, and the story essentially comprises "boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy goes to war to get horse back." The show is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, and in lesser hands, this could have been nothing but a turgid, sappy melodrama. And, frankly, at times, it is. But Elliot and Morris bring the admittedly predictable story to vivid and often horrifying life through some simply stunning stagecraft, aided by a handful of heartfelt performances.
You may have heard about the amazing puppetry involved in War Horse, and everything you've heard is true. (The puppets are designed and constructed by Handspring Puppet Company, with horse-movement sequences credited to Toby Sedgwick.) But, here's the thing: it's not the technical wizardry that makes the horses astonishing, but rather the way the talented team of puppeteers brings each horse to life. I swear, at times, I completely forgot that I was watching puppets.
Also, the dialog in the second act became a bit more ham-handed, particularly the lines for the German deserter, Friedrich (Peter Hermann). The story became a bit plodding and confusing, and the writer/directors missed some ripe opportunities for pathos. The unceremonious demise of one of the show's main characters is treated in an almost off-handed way. The show forecasts many of its developments long before they arrive. ("What's that in the distance? A German regiment? Or a predictable plot twist?") And the climactic scene in particular seemed blissfully unaware of subtlety and all its synonyms.
So, not a play for the ages, but definitely a production to be cherished, savored, and remembered for years to come. This is pot-boiler theater at its tear-jerking best. I was weeping like a little girl, practically from start to finish. And I hope to see the show again, to marvel once more in the physical production, the clean and honest emotion, and one of the most genuinely moving stories I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing. But this time, I'll bring tissues.