After a brief and unnecessary prologue, the first thing you see on the stage is a foal. His nostrils quiver, his legs tremble, his ears twitch, his tail flicks. Like most new life, the foal is a beautiful sight to behold. But there's a problem here: Three farmhands are standing too close. The foal, still unbroken to harness, needs space in which to explore its newfound freedom. An instant later it hits you: These are not farmhands, and this is not a foal. The Fox Theatre stage is not a meadow. The current offering, War Horse, is a majestic puppet show. The foal, which we will come to know as Joey, is a construction of steel, leather, nylon and aircraft cables, concocted by a South African outfit called the Handspring Puppet Company. The three farmhands are its deft, life-bestowing handlers, soon to be replaced by three others when the foal reaches maturity.
Created at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007, then staged at Lincoln Center in 2011, War Horse is the most recent entertainment to probe the age-old yet ever-mysterious bond between man and horse. The added nuance here is that Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel, adapted to the stage by Nick Stafford, uses the innocent eyes of a steed to expose viewers to the horrors of war. (A movie version of the story, directed by Steven Spielberg, premiered in 2011.) Joey is raised on a farm in England, where he becomes devoted to young Albert. But at the outset of World War I, Joey is sold to the British Army and shipped to France. Not to worry, the underage Albert is told. This war (like all wars, when they begin) is only going to last a few months. But as years go by and the carnage continues, the impatient Albert crosses the English Channel in search of his only friend.
In an age where the one-set, two-character play has become the norm, the epic War Horse provides a heady blast of theater adrenaline. This is maybe the most outside-the-norm offering to be seen at the Fox since the thrilling Deaf West Theatre version of Big River in 2005. War Horse needs to be seen large, and the current intrepid touring company does not disappoint. A cast of 35 actors enacts scores of roles. (As Albert's valiant mother, Angela Reed is especially persuasive.) The so-called puppeteers manage the life-size "horses" in such a skillful manner that we both accept the presence of the humans and ignore them at the same time. Which is to say that despite the constant spectacle onstage, our imaginations must kick into overdrive in order for the evening to succeed. This we willingly do.
There is more at work here than extravagant puppetry, however. A movie screen above the actors' heads slashes across the stage and provides the evening with added panorama, especially when trench warfare in France kicks in. Although War Horse is billed as a family offering, little is sugarcoated here, including how interminable war can become. The show's running length is nearly three hours. Is War Horse too much of a good thing? Perhaps — especially midway through Act Two, when Joey temporarily becomes a supporting character in his own story.
Despite a cavalcade of visual amazements, it was not until War Horse was over that I realized what I had missed. After the tumultuous curtain call, Alex Morf (who had portrayed Albert with winning sensitivity) stepped out from the cast to make an ingenuous appeal on behalf of the Broadway-based AIDS nonprofit Broadway Cares. Morf's words came haltingly and modestly; his humanity was endearing. He was real.
It's hardly a criticism to suggest that although War Horse dazzles on many levels — all who see it will know they have experienced something unique — perhaps because the show does not strive for reality, the bravura evening succeeds at nearly everything except an ability to touch the heart.