‘War Horse’ Gallops Into Shea’s With Moving Story

BUFFALO – The most moving war stories are often those which involve children or animals. This is because neither children nor animals have any say in the decisions which lead countries into war.

Shea’s Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo, has a very moving war story on their stage, in an award-winning, professional production of “War Horse,” adapted by Nick Stafford, and based upon the novel by Michael Morpurgo.

The plot is the same as a popular film by the same name, which was produced about a year ago by director Steven Spielberg. The plot deals with Alfred Narracott, a young English boy who becomes the owner of a colt named Joey, which he lovingly trains and with which he forms a very close bond. When World War I breaks out, the army is offering high prices for good horses, and the boy’s father sells his son’s horse to be part of the cavalry.

Nobody seemed to know in 1914, that the age of the cavalry had passed and horses didn’t stand much of a chance against machine guns and tanks.

Alfred decides he cannot bear to just sit at home and wait to hear what has happened to Joey, so he lies about his age and joins the infantry. Horse and owner have many adventures before their relationship is finally resolved, and the viewer’s emotions are dragged uphill and down. Take a handkerchief, is my recommendation, even if you’re usually left with a stiff upper lip.

The miraculous thing about this production, which played on Broadway for a long run, featuring young actors from the Chautauqua Theater Company in major roles, is that all of the horses and other animals in the show are played by puppets. The puppets, created by the Handspring Puppet Company are astonishingly realistic. While birds and small animals are handled by solo puppeteers, the horses are each manned by three puppeteers. The horses are just under 10 feet long and eight feet high, and each has 20 major joints. Two of the puppeteers are inside the horse, and the third stands or runs beside the head. The puppets can rear, move their facial features, visibly breathe, and are astonishingly believable, even though it’s possible to see the legs of the two people inside.

The fact that adults can and do ride these puppets makes them especially effective.

The show is a play, not a musical, although folk song-like singing does share some of the narrative of the story. John Milosich was the beautifully-voiced troubadour, and Spiff Wiegand played a heart-wrenching according in accompaniment.

Michael Wyatt Cox was a moving and sympathetic Albert, never maudlin, but always easy for the audience to relate with.

Gene Gillette was suitably dislikeable as the father who sold the horse, although it is understandable why he did so, under the circumstances. The rest of the cast were all energetic and played their roles well. Toby Sedgwick was responsible for the movement and horse choreography, and a major feat it was.

“War Horse” continues at Shea’s through Sunday.