Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"War Horse" at Tampa's Straz is magical

   There's almost no set, the music is recorded, the story is farfetched and ultimately predictable, and the title character is portrayed by a puppet made of sticks and aluminum.
   So why is "War Horse" so enthralling?
   The Tony-winning Broadway play debuted at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa Tuesday. It proved to be a magical work of imagination and deliciously low-tech craftsmanship.
   The story has to do with a boy in rural England whose horse is sold to the army's cavalry and shipped to France to fight in World War I. The boy lies about his age and enlists to try to find his horse.
   The set consist almost entirely of a ragged piece of fabric that stretches across the stage above the actors with projected images, almost all in gray. There are sketches of villages and frantic abstract animations that represent the chaos of battle.
   A reason for the sparse set, one suspects, is that designers didn't want to draw attention away from the Joey, the horse and the emotional center of the play. His design and construction are  spectacular feat of puppetry and his performance -- actually the performance of three actors who work his head, midsection and hindquarters -- is poignant.
   It's difficult to describe the puppet and the performance in any way that would do it justice. Even still photographs don't convey the complexity, power and delicacate beauty of the puppet. But it's so effectively designed and built that even with the actors (on opening night, Christopher Mai, Harlan Bengel and Rob Laqui) clearly visible, it's easy to believe you're watching a real horse. And the actors work it so beautifully that there's never a problem discerning subtleties of the horse's emotion. You can see the horse's thoughts. You can feel his fear and sadness. You believe you can see his muscles bulge as he strains to pull an ambulance full of wounded soldiers.
   "War Horse" isn't just about impressive puppetry, though. The show wouldn't work as well if the horse (actually, there are several horses) weren't so astounding. But the horse is an element of the show; it's not the show itself. It's one thrilling performance by a leading actor in a fine show.
   It's a bit overlong, about two and a half hours, and the first 20 minutes or so are slow. The use of recorded music in a Broadway show is disappointing, but by the end of the evening, all those slight flaws had been forgiven. "War Horse" is a wonderfully human work of creativity.

Details: Through May 5, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $44.50 plus service charge and up. Information: 813-229-7827 or

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