War Horse:You'll believe a horse can fly

Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger (Joey).
Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, and Jessica Krueger (Joey).
Photo courtesy Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

War Horse, the National Theatre of Great Britain hit that became a Tony winner, arrived at the Orpheum Wednesday evening with spectacle intact.

At times absolutely breathtaking, the play works best when Joey, the puppet horse at the story's center, is onstage. The human side of the tale often gets crushed beneath the mechanisms of the production and plot, which travels from rural England to the killing fields of World War I.

During the first portion of the play, Albert's main problems center on the rocky relationship with his drunken father. Those problems seem idyllic as the play deepens and World War I arrives on the scene. 

After Albert's father sells Joey to the British army (after promising that the horse belonged to his son), the play becomes two epic journeys. In one, Joey is caught amid the chaos of France, eventually being a part of the war effort for both the English and the Germans.

In the other, 16-year-old Albert lies about his age and enlists in an effort to find his beloved horse. Instead, he finds horrors upon horrors in the trenches and No Man's Land, where a good friend can become a corpse in a moment.

The horse gets the more compelling tale, in part because it encompasses a larger scope. We meet German soldiers and French natives on his journey, and feel the absolute horrors of the conflict, whether it is the threat of barbed-wire and machine guns to the calvary, or his time at the end of the war pulling an artillery gun to the point of near death.

In the play's most striking sequence, Joey breaks free of all of his handlers and rushes through No Man's Land, surrounded by terrors seemingly summoned from Hell: bullets and bombs and a skeletal tank, before finally being trapped in the cursed wire that brought down so many others.

The puppetry, originally created by the Handspring Puppet Company, is spectacular from beginning to end, from the breathtaking transformation of the foal Joey into the full-grown animal. A three-performer team controls each of the horses, creating not just natural movements but clear personalities for each of the animals.

The humans don't have as easy of a time in the play. It is constructed as such a spectacle that the performances don't have a lot of space to breathe. Alex Morf, a St. Olaf grad who started his career in the Twin Cities, showcases Albert's journey from innocent to grizzled veteran, while the balance of the cast work well within the tight framework of the production.

Though it is a drama (with some music and singing to bridge the scenes), War Horse has plenty in common with the musicals that the Hennepin Theatre Trust often brings to town. Like the best of those, this play provides an absolute treat of an experience that is immersive and overwhelming in the way only live theater can be.


War Horse
Through June 23
Orpheum Theatre,
910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 1.800.982.2787 or visit online.

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Orpheum Theatre

910 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403



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