Puppeteers pump wonder into 'War Horse'
Puppeteers pump wonder into ‘War Horse’

Part of the magic of live theater is that it is participatory, and I don’t mean that in the Cirque-du-Soleil-way, where they drag you up on stage and throw ping pong balls at your head.

Whenever you go see a play, you enter into a nonverbal agreement with the actors and the rest of the audience that you are all going to play make-believe together and pretend that the events occurring on stage are really happening.

Typically, we use this power rather benignly to create opera houses haunted by disfigured, angel-voiced phantoms or back alleys where alley cats sing disjointed, strangely off-putting songs.

But never before has the power of collective imagination been tapped so astoundingly as with “War Horse,” now showing at the Fox Theatre through March 24.

This simple story of a boy and his horse separated by World War I is brought to life by some of the most amazing puppetry you will ever see.

These life-sized horses are articulated by an impeccably synchronized team of three puppeteers. No effort is made to disguise the human performers and the appearance of the horses seems almost crude and skeletal.

But then something incredible happens, and in no time, these horses are as real as any of the human actors on the stage.

When director Steven Spielberg saw the play, he was so moved that he immediately set out to make a movie version. The film “War Horse” was impressive in its own right, yet somehow, even with real horses, he was unable to duplicate the wonder of the stage production.

I feel obliged to mention the horses and their performers first and foremost over any of the human actors because they are the real stars of the show.

The story follows Joey, who as a foal is brought to life by Mari Babb, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica, and as a fully-grown, rideable horse by Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger.

When Joey finally joins the war effort, he befriends a black stallion named Topthorn (Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns, and Gregory Manley).

Joey’s owner is young Irish farm boy Albert Narracott (Alex Morf), who raises the horse after he was purchased in a fit of pride by Albert’s alcoholic father Ted (Mat Hostetler).

When war breaks out, Ted sells Joey to the army, which devastates Albert. Joey then finds himself in a war at the beginning of a mechanized age, when horses quickly go from being assets to burdens.

Joey winds up on both sides of enemy lines and touches many lives, including German captain and deserter Friedrich Muller. Albert is eventually old enough to enlist and we follow him through the trenches as he holds out hope that he might once again be reunited with Joey.

The production is punctuated by haunting Irish folk music admirably performed vocally by John Milosich with an accordion assist from Nathan Koci.

This show is simply remarkable and is a must-see event for people who aren’t usually fans of the theater. The stagecraft on display here is really unmatched by anything I have ever seen before and the story packs a hefty emotional punch as well.

It’s not every day you are able to take part in something this magical and actually get to witness a wire cage shaped like a horse spring to life and then make you cheer.

“War Horse” is now playing at the Fox Theatre through March 24. For tickets call (314)-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.

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