Simple storytelling comes fully alive in 'War Horse'

When the National Theatre of Great Britain's majestic, magnificent adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's "War Horse" opened at New York's massive Lincoln Center — on its way to five Tony Awards, sold-out houses, and a 21-month run — one had an overwhelming sense of an epic clash between the bucolic innocence of agrarian South West England and the shockingly mechanized barbarism of World War One I. Both vistas, which co-defined their century, really, seemed to stretch on into infinity.

The touring version of "War Horse," which, alas, is cantering through Chicago with a run of just three weeks, lacks that sense of scope and scale but replaces it with great urgency and fierce dramatic intensity, aptly enough for Chicago. It is not to be missed.

At the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Tuesday night, Joey, the stunning puppet horse whose flanks appear to breathe, pulse and sweat before your eyes, seemed to fill the entire stage. He may not have the same room to gallop through the meadows of Devon, nor the killing fields of France, but he is now allowed out in the aisle, trotting past delighted theater-goers, many of whom seemed to barely restrain themselves from reaching out to touch his awesome chest.

Of course, theater is always a product of its moment, even if the original "War Horse" production is now more than five years old. This has been a tough few days in the United States of America, which perhaps explains why the show's themes of a young boy's unflinching, unfaltering, unconditional love for his horse — and his determination to protect him from harm, even as the world blows up around him — land with such emotional force right now. One of the more brilliant aspects of Nick Stafford's dramatic adaptation is how it takes a simple story, aimed at young people, and complicates and imbues it with both an acute sense of how the role of chance determines who lives and dies and the comforting (if contradictory) notion that love for a fellow creature is about the only way we can ever hope to weigh the dice in our favor.

The original National Theatre directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, took that combination of often painful realism and romantic hope and created a bravura and thrillingly original staging that reached for artistic complexity and visual symbol without ever sacrificing simple accessibility and old-fashioned storytelling — replete with a boy and a beast for whom to root. Assuming you see the wisdom of exposing them to the suffering of war (and, if not, how do they learn?), "War Horse" can easily be understood by young people and is ideal, I would say, for those ages 10 and up.

There are those who have found the text simplistic and sentimental. For sure, it is not some knotted dramatic landscape of the kind fashioned by Edward Albee. But in this instance, it serves the theatricality of the production beautifully. "War Horse" avoided many common traps, not the least of which is the temptation of digital scenery. Even in this touring production, Rae Smith's design still explores the huge, three-dimensional objects that loom in a young man's consciousness, be they machine guns, plows or horses. The digital backdrop, created by a company called 59 Productions to resemble the kind of sketchbook that might have survived a war, is about the lightest and quietest such backdrop you ever will see, and thus among the most beautiful.

And then there is Joey (and his pal Topthorn), creations of the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa (recently at the MCA in Chicago). Without them, this show would not exist. It's hard to overstate their centrality and the brilliance of the collective accomplishment in their creation and ongoing manipulation. I'd seen them a few times before (if this will be your first, lucky you) but a few things bear repeating. One is that these puppets understand, as most puppets do not, the motion of living things. Their multitudinous joints never really join — they float, which means we feel like they are alive, because life is all about movement and most big-scale puppets lock in internal stasis. Not these horses. They snort, rear up, whinny and, well, live. You won't see the puppeteers, even though they are in full view. It is amazing what we can be tricked to ignore. The other notable thing is that great puppet work does not have to be avant-garde or esoteric. The work here is in service of making us believe. There are few things as noble in the theater.

These days, "War Horse" is in the hands of assistants and associates and I wouldn't say that director Bijan Sheibani, who re-created the original staging, has found every nuance you could see in London or New York. Touring shows mean compromises. But the touring cast, although a little younger than ideal in some roles, is quite strong (and at full strength of numbers). Andrew Veenstra, who plays the lead role of young Albert, Joey’s owner and protector, carries the emotional weight of the show without resorting to overt sentimentality. And Andrew May, who plays who plays the disaffected German soldier who also helps save Joey, has just the right note of angst and ambivalence (he has a note of the Bill Murray, actually).

But there is a reason the show is named for a horse — and is, fundamentally, about the quest to protect something simple and beautiful in the face of the unimagined, wholly irrational horrors of life that, wartime or peacetime, never seem to go away for long.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $30-$105 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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