WAR HORSE

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

In the 1930s, French playwright, dramatic theorist, and madman, Antonin Artaud, first theorized the notion of “Total Theatre,” a term which had been alluded to previously by Wagner and Craig. Total theatre demanded that the stage abandon its logocentric and psychological performance history in favor of creating a unique and purely theatrical language, a language that was based in the senses rather than the mind, one that was metaphysical and transcendent, and which was capable of reminding humanity of the Self it had long forgotten.

For Artaud, actors were dancing hieroglyphs, just one of many theatrical elements that combined on stage in order to put audiences back in contact with metaphysical Truth. The traditional elements of drama (ie. the written text, plot, dialogue, character) were secondary to the larger goals that Artaud had in mind, which in short, was to shock audiences back into reality. Ultimately, “total theatre” aspired to transform performance, drawing on all artistic elements to create a powerful experience for the audience; it utilized dance, song, stage-craft, costumes, plastic arts, architecture, and everything at the theatre’s disposal to achieve its totalizing goal.

In many ways, the grand spectacles of contemporary Broadway have heeded the lessons of “Total Theatre,” though not in a metaphysical sense to be sure, but rather in that they tend to stun and overwhelm audiences with captivating scenographic wizardry. Audiences come to see a Broadway show to be mesmerized by the stage-craft, which includes dazzling sets and set changes, brilliant costumes, mind-boggling special effects, and a truly spectacular performance experience on par with that of cinema. And the latest touring production of “War Horse,” based on the novel written by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, is no exception to the rule.

In fact, the stage-craft is so brilliantly executed in this production, which stars Andrew Veenstra as “Albert Narracott” and a whole host of puppeteers to play “Joey,” the horse, at various stages of his life, that at times it is easy to forget that this is a live show and not a blockbuster movie on the big screen, (which it did become eventually, of course).

The directors, (and apparently there are many for a show this size), make particularly good use of digital video projections to help them tell the story about the love between a boy and his horse. As a reminder that the work was originally a novel, the backdrop screen on which these images are projected appears as a ripped out sheet of paper from a book that allows the audience to “look into” the various settings and landscapes in which the story unfolds, from a small village in Ireland to the World War I battlefields of Northern France. Everything has been expertly scenographically designed to illicit a visceral emotional response from the audience.

But whereas the “Total Theatre” of Artaud, mentioned at the beginning of this review, was an attempt to uncover a lost metaphysical language, the goals of Broadway shows, and that of “War Horse”, are much less lofty: simply to entertainingly tell a story.  And the story told is a beautiful one, though chock full of anthropomorphic sentimentalism and overt coincidence.

Overall, this is a fantastic production with the exception of one, very awkward casting choice: the actress playing the role of “Emilie”, Lavita Shaurice, seemed way too old to be a little French girl around the age of 7 or 8. But this aside, “War Horse” has a stellar cast of well-seasoned actors and actresses and an incredible design team who are capable of transporting audiences nearly 100 years back in time when the world was at war with itself.

“War Horse” plays through February 24th at the Paramount Theatre. For tickets, go to www.STGpresents.org

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