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'War Horse'

Paul Kolnik

This spellbinding London play sets a high bar for Steven Spielberg's upcoming film version.

It's easy to see what attracted Steven Spielberg to British children's author Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse. But it's hard to imagine how the screen version, due in December, can improve on the thrilling experience of this stage adaptation, which is as emotionally stirring, visually arresting and compellingly told as anything on the filmmaker's résumé.

Produced by London's National Theatre, the play premiered in 2007 and went on after two soldout engagements to become a smash in the West End, where it's still running. This Broadway transfer makes tremendous use of the deep stage and various aisles of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, creating a spectacle both intimate and epic. The limited run is scheduled through June 26, but critical reception and rapturous word-of-mouth seem certain to change that to an open-ended stay.

Adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company, War Horse is specific in its historic setting of World War I, but any concerns about American audiences' distance from that conflict are unfounded. The writer and creative team make this story universal in its reflections on war, its considerations of how we define courage and cowardice and its portrayal of the purest kind of love.

Comparisons to The Lion King are inevitable but also facile. While the puppetry designs of South African company Handspring and its founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, are the undisputed stars, this is an entirely different, far more emotionally immersive experience than the Disney show. It belongs to a rich tradition of British story theater that favors artisanal craftsmanship over technology. When it works, as it does so exquisitely here, this can be as transporting for adults as it is for children.

Operated by teams of three or more puppeteers, the life-size horses are breathtaking in their detail. The designs eschew naturalism for wood, cloth and wire constructs that share every secret of the mechanisms involved. Yet in every way — their breathing, their flaring nostrils, twitching ears and soulful eyes, their powerful flanks and movements that can be skittish or graceful — these are not cute facsimiles but flesh-and-blood creatures. What's remarkable is how quickly the puppeteers, who also provide vocal sounds for the horses, vanish through sheer force of imagination.

Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris with a fluid narrative grasp and seamless cohesion between design and performance elements, the show centers on the life of a horse named Joey from birth. As a foal, Joey appears to grow before our eyes before being purchased by Ted Narracott (Boris McGiver), a Devon farmer. Ted pays a ridiculous amount for the horse merely to outbid his brother Arthur (T. Ryder Smith), their bitter rivalry shared by their respective sons, Albert (Seth Numrich) and Billy (Matt Doyle). When Ted's feisty wife, Rose (Alyssa Bresnahan), learns that the mortgage money has gone for a horse not even bred for farm work, she orders 16-year-old Albert to raise the animal until it's healthy enough to fetch a good price.

Joey's speed and strength attract Arthur's attention, resulting in a bet with Ted that the horse cannot be trained to pull a plow. When Albert's perseverance wins his father the bet, he also becomes Joey's owner, nixing any plan to sell. But when Britain goes to war and large sums are being paid for cavalry horses, Ted sells Joey to the army behind his son's back.

When word reaches Albert that the officer riding Joey has been killed, he runs off to France, lies about his age and enlists, determined to find the animal. Joey, meanwhile, has been captured by the Germans and put to work pulling an ambulance cart in a casualty clearance station in the Somme Valley.

The battle scenes are stylized, even balletic at times, yet charged and visceral. The horror of horses being ridden into barbed wire and machine-gun fire yields particularly distressing moments. One striking stage picture, in which a horse and a tank rear up in each other's paths, provides a wrenching illustration of the incompatibility of nature and the machine age. But despite its penetrating sorrows, there's an overriding tenderness to this story of how a boy and his horse endure the brutality of war that will leave few in the audience unmoved.

One could nitpick that the directors overuse the folk songs and battle anthems that punctuate the action or that Stafford's writing is at times simplistic in explicating its themes, notably in a face-to-face encounter between a British soldier and his German counterpart. But overall, the presentation and writing are sentimental in the noblest possible way.

Although the actors can't quite compete with the majestic beauty of the puppets (which include corpse-scavenging ravens and an ornery goose), the American cast all contribute vivid characterizations and total commitment to the illusion these animals are real.

Numrich brings heartbreaking conviction to Albert's love of Joey and his almost unwavering faith that the animal has survived. In a uniformly strong ensemble, Peter Hermann also makes a deep impression as a German who assumes a medical officer's identity to avoid returning to the front. This character typifies the play's refusal to break down antagonists into villains and heroes but rather to show that everyone is a victim in war.

No words are adequate to describe the effectiveness of Rae Smith's gorgeous design work. Its most evocative element is the torn page of a sketchbook overhead, which locates the shifting action and changing atmosphere with a mix of pencil drawings and projections.

In its blending of modern and traditional storytelling, its poetic imagery and primal emotion, this is the kind of magical theater event that comes along only rarely. As an introduction to the stage for young audiences, War Horse has the uplifting power to make lifelong converts. For more seasoned theatergoers, it has the elegance and inventiveness to erase the jaded memories of dozens of more cynical entertainments.

Venue Vivian Beaumont Theatre, New York (Through June 26)
Cast Seth Numrich, Alyssa Bresnahan, Boris McGiver, T. Ryder Smith, Matt Doyle, Stephen Plunkett, Brian Lee Huynh, Richard Crawford, David Pegram, Peter Hermann, Madeleine Rose Yen
Playwright Nick Stafford, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo in association with Handspring Puppet Company
Directors Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris