War Horse...It's Complicated

I searched for the best definition of "Theater" and could not find one that satisfied me, so I will try to define it myself. Theater is drama put on stage for the enjoyment and/or edification (instruction, improvement or enlightenment, especially when morally or spiritually uplifting) of the public.Yes, I think that works.

So, my purpose here is first and foremost to review the most current play that I have seen on Broadway, WAR HORSE. Before I do, let me demonstrate how much I enjoy going to the theater in general, by naming the 7 plays (shows) I have seen in the past 6 months. I put shows in parentheses to delineate Straight Plays from "Musicals" or Shows. A straight play relies on the spoken word to tell the story. Although a Straight Play may have music in it, the music is usually more of a device to create mood or atmosphere, than a way of telling the story. A Musical relies more on song and dance to tell the story and/or showcases the talents of the writers and/or performers. There are some critics, or even theater goers in general, who will put a judgement call on the two kinds of theater. They would say a straight play often challenges audiences, and demands more listening and thinking, as opposed to a musical which is primarily a venue of entertainment for a few hours. I would strongly disagree with this dichotomy. I would say that I love all theater because it is LIVE, real people on a stage in front of you (as opposed to moving pictures of people in movies or video games or TV shows) who enact some kind of story or theme for the purpose of engaging the audience. Singing and dancing, as opposed to just "acting", demonstrates different kinds of talent and effects different parts of one's brain and body. Sometimes they effect the same parts. In any case, one is not superior to the other, different, but not better. 

So, back to the plays I've seen since March, 2012:
As for War Horse, it's complicated.


In one sense, War Horse is theater at it's best. That is to say, it is pure drama and uses devices like sound (for example the thundering of tanks in war), light (the stage is mostly relatively dark and somber, making the sudden spurts of bright lights in war scenes all the more vivid), a minimum of stage scenery and a device that was quite unusual and creative. It was a computerized banner overhead that both kept the audience abreast of the date when the particular action was occurring, as well as alluding to environment such as water or sky. I found it very effective. Another effective device was how they used music to both move the story along and to enhance it. There was a single woman singing in the style of Irish Storytellers, and then there was the long line of actors, combining their voices in what may have been the most beautiful a cappella singing I have ever heard. The soldiers sang their songs too. 
But, wait, I've not yet mentioned the most major device used spectacularly well in War Horse. The Puppetry, which consisted mainly of the horses, but also a pestering goose,   (reminiscent of "mother goose"), song birds and vultures, steal the performance. The play asks you to suspend disbelief, but these horses were made and made to move in such believable and extraordinary ways, that really it was an easy jump from disbelief to belief. 

So, why did I say my critique of the play, WarHorse (spelled sometimes with two words, other times with one) is complicated? I do so because, though it is more than apparent to me what is great about the play, that despite it's technical greatness, it did not really move me. I saw the movie, War Horse, and thought it spectacular. It often moved me to tears. I truly felt the love between the boy and his horse, the tension in the family due to the father, who though clearly loving his son and wife and wanting the best for them, buries his troubles in alcohol and consequently brings his family to strife. I understood the succession of scenes that bring you through World War I in the movie. Had I not seen the movie, I would have had real difficulty following the play. And finally, I found some of the accents they used for the British characters and the German ones too, not only difficult to understand, but to be a distraction to, not an enhancement of the play. Though there were times throughout the play that I was engaged and even had visceral reactions, overall, I was not. There were even some scenes in which I was a bit bored. I hesitate to say so, because I know that this was not the case for many who saw War Horse and I certainly can understand why they loved it. However much I appreciated it and sometimes found myself moved, I can not wholeheartedly say i loved it. Like we say in facebook when it comes to relationships, it's complicated!


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