‘War Horse’: Humanity in the midst of horror

BOSTON — In many ways, World War I was the cruelest war of all. The poison gas, the machine guns that mowed down soldiers accustomed to trench warfare, generated a level of misery that the world had never seen before.
Andrew Veenstra, Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui  in
“War Horse” at the Opera House (Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Into this theater of cruelty and against this backdrop of death and destruction rides “War Horse,” now at the Opera House in Boston.
Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, “War Horse” begins in the small English village of Devon just at the advent of World War I, when two brothers find themselves in a bidding war for a horse named Joey.
Ted Narracot (Todd Cerveris) is a feisty, hard-drinking farmer constantly at odds with his more refined brother Arthur (Brian Keane). Ted outbids his brother for the half-thoroughbred, half-draft horse that in reality is only meant to be ridden, and isn’t the ploughhorse he really needs.

Joey instantly bonds with Ted’s son Albert (Andrew Veenstra), who rebels against the thought of giving Joey up to his cocky cousin Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox) when Ted places a drunken bet with his brother that Joey can be taught to pull a plow.
Joey pulls it off, but Ted betrays the boy and the horse again when he cannot resist an offer to sell Joey to the army for 100 pounds, and Joey goes off to war as a member of a cavalry regiment.
The horse, of course, was a constant as a weapon of war from the time the first warrior climbed aboard one; the speed and strength of the animal combined with the vantage point that put the rider above the fray made it so.
When Albert, still only 16, learns that the officer who vowed to care for Joey forever is dead, he joins the army in an effort to find Joey. Joey, meanwhile, endures an amazing journey that finds him serving in the both the English and German armies and also finding refuge with a French family.

Despite some powerful performances, the pageantry and special effects at times threaten to overshadow both the story and the performers. That’s because of the remarkable achievements of the South African-based Handspring Puppet Company, winner of a 2011 special Tony for the puppeteer-manipulated creations that include both Joey and his fellow Army horse, Topthorn, other horses, birds, a comic goose and even a tank.
The amazingly lifelike, well-choreographed and synchronized movements of all the animals are truly remarkable; two early scenes between Albert and Joey as a foal and later a full-grown horse have us believing in Joey early on.
The battle scenes are harrowing, and the production owes much to the superb use of light, sound and music to create the desired effects.
Grayson DeJesus and Michael Wyatt Cox in a scene from “War Horse”
at the Opera House in Boston. (Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
The stirring, haunting songs sung by John Milosich, accompanied by Nathan Koci, lend context and tinges of melancholy. Rae Smith’s costumes, set design and her drawings, projected above the action on a suspended screen, make it easier to both tell the story and be absorbed by it.
The lighting by Paule Constable is especially effective; the entire play takes place on a dimly-lit stage, suggesting the darkness of war, and then erupting in brilliant, deadly blasts.
Christopher Shutt’s sound recreates the chaos and confusion when the dogs of war are unleashed; Smith, Constable and Shutt all won Tonys for the Broadway production.
There is a telling moment near the end of the play, when Joey finds himself at his most helpless, pinned to the barbed wire that killed so many horses in that war, when the English and the Germans soldiers find their own humanity in their respect for the courage of the animal.
While “War Horse” dramatically and realistically presents the horrors of war, it also manages to find in its uplifting equine hero and his human caretaker the nobility and decency that can shine through, even in humanity’s darkest hours.
The National Theatre of Great Britain production of “War Horse.” Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo as adapted by Nick Stafford. In association with Handspring Puppet Company. Directed by Bijan Shebani. At the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston through Oct. 21. For tickets, go to http://www.broadwayinboston.com.