After seeing War Horse at the Curran Theatre, I walked down the street to a speakeasy-themed bar, where I sat for a while and hypothesized about why the World War I era has sustained such intense cultural interest in recent years.
The degree of change that occurred at this point in history was unprecedentedly epic. A pre-automobile, pre-telephone Victorian society seemed to somersault into a frenetic world of airplanes and sexual liberation in the course of just a few years. World War I can be seen as the confused, violent birth of the modern world we now know, and it’s fascinating to revisit the growing pains that accompanied this defining transition. The heart-rendingly foolish practice of sending men on horseback toward a line of machine guns is one such example.
Maybe there’s something else to it. Whatever the reason, though, 2007 proved a very smart year for Nick Stafford to adapt Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel for the stage. The fact that a successful film adaptation followed the play’s Broadway debut by less than a year testifies to the story’s fine timing.
It also gives reason for pause. A play typically receives some space as a stage piece before Hollywood greenlights a film version of the story, and even then some friction is expected between the two realizations. That an acclaimed film came and went before a production of the play even hit San Francisco is a little weird.
On Friday, my fears were confirmed: War Horse is not in a position to stake specificity as a theater piece because actually, it isn’t very good.
You mostly hear people talk about how amazing the horse puppeteering is. Indeed, it is an absolute pleasure to watch Joey-the-horse twitch, heave, rear and gallop at the manipulation of three people (Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica for foal-Joey, Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger for mature-Joey) who quickly disappear into the convincing effect. Unfortunately, this is the only truly noteworthy thing about the stage play.
The story concerns Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra), a boy who falls in love with his horse only to have his alcoholic dad (Brian Keane) sell it to the army, come the war.
Albert then enlists, despite being underage, in hopes of reuniting with his beloved beast, which becomes a symbol of innocence amid the desensitized, dehumanized conditions of a pointless, über-violent war. The narrative splits between Albert and Joey, who winds up serving both sides before ultimately getting caught in a no man’s land.
The play’s first half is the better one. It is delightful watching Albert and Joey interact as the latter ages (and grows to enormous size), and the older characters, notably Albert’s mother Rose (Angela Reed), give good performances.
But the boy-and-his-horse relationship cuts a regrettably Disney-esque shape – shallow, hackneyed, as vanilla as any lazy love story (“we were meant for one another” goes the phrase which neatly does away with having to actually develop chemistry). No mistaking it: this ain’t no Equus; this is a children’s tale.
Children’s tales can still be brave though, and War Horse is not. The production’s dull second act cycles through a list of petrified wartime scenes and characters – the nervous foxhole chatter, the reminiscing about a girl (or, interchangeably, horse) back home, the seemingly hardened German soldier who redeems his humanity by helping civilians (it’s no wonder Steven Spielberg took an interest) – while its narrative drive and visual appeal steadily peter out. At no point does any character express an emotion that could be described as complex, have to make a thorny moral decision or acknowledge ambiguity of really any kind.
At the end of the play, a chorus figure, Song Man (John Milosich), delivers his bookending refrain: “We will be remembered for what we have done.” Nothing from this story exactly jumps to mind. Rather, the play’s impact seems more a case of being in the right place at the right time. Or, world-class puppeteering goes a long way.
War Horse runs through September 9 at the Curran Theatre; SHNsf.com