Friday, June 10, 2011

A.B.C...It's easy as W.A.R.H.O.R.S.E. - 'War Horse' on Broadway

The year is 1914. Amidst the panoply of war and widespread social unease, an innocent young boy forms a bond with a horse - a singular, unbreakable bond of love, trust, and kinsman ship. For a time, life is free and easy, but all good things must come to an end… The boy's father sells the horse to the wartime cavalry. Devastated, the young boy runs away from home and lies about his age, determined to join the good fight and find his horse. It's epic. It's Adventurous. It’s LIVE. Yes, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron has come to Broadway!

Well, not really. The play is War Horse, and in its open run at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont theatre, it is putting the 'sap' in 'sappy' eight times a week.

War Horse exudes, from every pore, the shameful quality of a child assuming the pretense of sickness in an attempt to lawfully ditch class.
It has a "pity me" frown to beat the band, it gets all red in the face, it chokes out a few throaty coughs, and boy does it have dimples, but, as is typically the case, there is no actual fever to be found.

There isn't any legitimate drama in War Horse (there is barely any content). What we’re left with is a hollow, empty shell of gaudy, flashy, blinding tinfoil.
Many audience members are proclaiming that their senses were so overwhelmed by War Horse's technical wizardry that they were brought to tears. You can count me among the proclaimers…but with one important amendment: Often the imagery was so guttural and so moving that my eyes would begin to water. True. Yes. But the impulse to cry would soon be stifled by a kinesthetically brought on eye-roll anytime anyone spoke any line of dialogue, all of which were offensively stupid.

War Horse is actually based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, and like everything else from the early-to-mid eighties, it’s back! As performed on the Vivian Beaumont stage, War Horse is milking its Dewey Decimal classification for all it's worth. To be called a children's book or a children's play is not and should not be a point of defamation. Many works of fiction meant for children are glorious, probing pieces that do not need to resort to condescension or double entendre to ensnare an audience. I’ve got you, Babe.

But War Horse ain’t Babe, and it falls into every children’s theatre trap imaginable: fake acting, nonsensical moral lessons, and notably replacing the word “f**king” with “effing” over and over again. Plus, Lincoln Center is a super strange setting for a children’s play. Lincoln Center Plaza is THE theatrical safe-haven for drama-inclined introverts over thirty-five. Know your audience.

Although the spoken words are so simple one could swear they were translated from a cuneiform tablet, I must commend the team of puppeteers whose listening abilities as equestrian steeds eclipse that of any “human” actor onstage - most of whom are melodramatically wailing over petty, repetitive squabbles and a Lazy-Susan of underdeveloped plot lines.

But here’s the thing - the so-called groundbreaking puppetry in War Horse breaks no ground that director Julie Taymor didn’t obliterate fourteen years ago. The big difference is the approach. While The Lion King opted to take the road of overblown theatricality, War Horse (directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) seeks to present onstage cinematic realism ala Band of Brothers. Sure, there are stylistic elements abound, but what becomes pointedly irksome is the production’s attempt to hide their puppeteers.

Pay no attention to the men behind the horse-frame!

The puppeteers’ personalities take a far backseat to the puppet itself, depending on true-to-life horse quirks rather than making Joey a formidable character. And in that respect, I know that the stage version of War Horse differs from its book brother. Michael Morpurgo’s novel is told from the perspective of Joey the horse, but on stage tells the story of Albert (a tad on-the-nose to be name your main character after the seated British sovereign during World War I...), the horse’s owner. I expect that stage Joey will most likely, in time, join the ranks of Phantom’s chandelier and Miss Saigon’s helicopter. No amount of realistic horse movement, noise, OR money can compensate for the lack of a soul.

Ah yes, the acting. Wait. There were actors?!

The scenic design definitely bows down to the puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company. They are very cool, ingeniously designed creatures, and the operation of their various joints and tick is a mystery - but a mystery, I daresay a gimmick, that falls flat far too soon. Rae Smith’s set, while spacious, never seems to fully utilize the expanse that the Vivian Beaumont has to offer. One thing I love about a well designed Lincoln Center production is the jubilant celebration of having space in a town where there is little to be found.

The lighting by Paule Constable is no-holds-barred mind-blowing. The design weaved together effortless establishment of location, mood, and character while still providing the necessary spectacle. Constable should teach a master class for the rest of the creative team.

War Horse will be a hit. Content is losing to flash more and more all the time, and only sparingly are the two working together in true artistic collaboration. The play certainly has its merits. The visual storytelling is pretty and profound, if not a little bit overworked, but the words, words, words are sadly lacking. It’s nominated for a slew of Tonys and is bound to pick up a few. After all, it’s a play that tourists actually want to see. But in reality it is just a hollow, expensive two hour forty five minute yawn. I could have called this ‘Bore Horse’... but I didn’t. -Johnny Oleksinski

War Horse runs at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre