I’m a tough old bird. At least that is how I think of myself. A lot of my friends would concur. However, there is no logic to the arc of human emotion. When I watch a gripping and gory film like Saving Private Ryan or Born on the Fourth of July, I may cover my eyes for the bloodiest parts, but I can walk out of the theatre with dry eyes. But give me Old Yeller or Black Beauty and I dissolve into a stumbling puddle of tears.
This is why, having seen—repeatedly—the trailer for the film, War Horse, I was convinced this was not a movie for me. I actually wondered why anyone would want to watch a film about horses being blown to bits in the killing fields of humanity’s madness.
Then I discovered that the National Theatre of Great Britain’s stage production was hitting the road in the US, with Boise, Idaho, of all places, to host the premier national tour appearance. The entire production had to be reworked to accommodate an audience seated on one side as opposed to a three-sided stage, as it was performed in London, Toronto, and New York. The crew and cast arrived in town nearly three works early to effect this transformation.
Come on—a stage production about a horse and a war? Insane! I was still uninterested in the production, till a friend offered me a free ticket. She holds season tickets for the Broadway In Boise series at the Morrison Center. She’d been called out of town for a family emergency so she selected me as her husband’s date for the night. Ah. What are friends for? After tamping down my initial distaste for the pairing of two incongruous words, war and horse, I agreed. Surely, a stage production would be less gory, less raw than a film production—right? Puppets standing in for horses? That would curb the emotional impact, bump up the intellectual facets of the narrative—right?
WRONG! The first half introduced the story line: Loser father, motivated by the desire to upstage his brother, forfeits the family mortgage money to buy a colt for his son. Flash forward a couple of years and the evil man pedals the boy’s horse to the English Cavalry for the lordly sum of 100 pounds. The horse crosses the ocean to face the front in France. The 16-year old boy enlists in the hopes of finding his horse. Some tender moments here, nothing I couldn’t handle. The technical aspects were absolutely amazing. The animals, from horses to geese and vultures were designed and fabricated by Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa. The animation, provided by actors huddled inside the horse contraption, was incredibly realistic, right down to expressive grunts, whistles, nickers, and neighs.
The action ramped up in the second act, as did the emotional devastation. The sound effects of cannons, tanks, and guns was augmented by smoke, blinding flashes of light, and a steady black & white film backdrop on the back curtain, all of which placed the squirming audience smack dab on the fields of Calais. Animated horses, sliding to the ground in grotesque death throes pushed me over the edge. How much more must we endure? I wondered. Will it ever end? I’m sure if I’d been sitting in the cinema, I’d have walked out the door.
The underlying theme, of course, is the inherent battle of good versus evil. We see army officers on both sides of the conflict who risk their own safety for that of the horse. But we also see those who view the animal as one more inanimate tool to be used in the killing machine. The show is a mesmerizing stew of exquisite talent. I was sucked in hook, line, and sinker. As the house lights came up, I was one of many wiping tears from my eyes.
How does the production crew recover from nightly performances of such wrenching emotion? The main actor was still wiping the tears from his own face during his third curtain call. This must take years off the lives of these performers. I have a new respect for puppets.