DES MOINES —
For a production that won the 2011 Tony Award for best play, War Horse has some unexpected struggles.
The play began its run at the Des Moines Civic Center on Tuesday and continues through Dec. 16. At its heart is the relationship between Albert Narracott and Joey, the foal he raises after his father makes a very ill-advised purchase. The two grow in the years immediately preceding World War I, the outbreak of which leads Albert's father to sell Joey to the British cavalry.
Staging is slight in this production and, for the most part, that's a good thing. The horses are cane and fabric attended by three puppeteers. A more detailed and realistic set might inadvertently tempt the audience to make comparisons the horses wouldn't win.
As it is, the horses and the puppeteers playing them prove remarkably adept at making people forget they aren't real. The illusion is maintained through little things like a swish of a tail or the twitch of an ear. While all theater asks the audience to suspend its disbelief on some issues, the skill of the puppeteers makes that leap almost effortless. The horses, primarily Joey and Topthorn, are clearly the best thing in this production.
Their human counterparts are not as convincing, a legacy, perhaps, of the story's origin as a children's novel. Michael Wyatt Cross, who plays Albert through the Dec. 14 show, particularly struggles to portray his character during his first meeting with Joey. It's all too apparent the audience is seeing an adult act like a child. Cross' performance improves considerably later in the play.
The music proves something of a distraction, intruding into the flow of the story and acting as an immediate brake on whatever momentum may have been established with the preceding scenes. It's a shame, too. Bombast reminiscent of Carmina Burana's "O Fortuna," isn't necessary when the staging includes a considerable volume of artillery and gunfire.
There are solid reasons to see War Horse. Despite occasional coarse language, this is a reasonably good introduction to theater for mature children. And it does remind audiences that European conflicts didn't begin with World War II, a fact Americans are too prone to forgetting.
At its best, War Horse can be genuinely moving and entertaining. It displays the skills of nearly a dozen talented puppetteers, for whom the audience gave one of the biggest rounds of applause at the play's conclusion.
The biggest? It came when they brought the horse puppets out for their own bow.