War Horse Is A Winner

Disclaimer:The Straz Center for the performing arts invited me to the enjoy the opening night of the Tony award winning play War Horse.  I was paid with 2 tickets in exchange for an honest review.  All opinions are my own.

Now that is what I call Theater with a capital T!

First must I admit to approaching War Horse with some skepticism. I am not a "horsey" sort of person and the only things I knew about this play was that it was also a book and a movie. Then I heard about  the life-size puppets.... Now that caught my attention. The tinkerer in me was intrigued, so I decided to check it out.

Before the show a friend told me how much she admires an actor's ability to fearlessly become someone else for a time - and with a judgmental audience looking on. While I can appreciate this, I've always been more of a backstage person. It is the writing, props, lighting and assorted illusions that will make or break a show for me. 

War Horse has it all - Excellent acting, entertaining characters, an emotional story, big music and some fantastic sets! The sets were both minimalist and complex at the same time. A giant screen resembling a strip of torn paper hovered over the production. Wonderful "pencil" drawings and animated sketches played across this "paper" throughout the play. Peaceful landscapes alternate with action-packed scribbles - sometimes lulling the audience into imagining the English country side, other times hurling you into the chaos and terror of WWI combat.

The creative use of three dimensional space was also interesting. A hovering door or window would evoke a farmhouse.  At times actors and props were interchangeable - for example, background characters holding long poles might stand perfectly still, acting as fences in one scene ... then spinning like dervishes, heightening the the tensions of particular scene or character.

While I was enthralled by the clever staging, the sparse set was the perfect backdrop for some truly elaborate puppets.  The war horse Joey appears as both a young foal and a full grown beast. It takes two sets of three puppeteers to bring each incarnation to life. And they really do seem to come alive; the elaborate manipulations have the horses twitching ears and tails, breathing and galloping around the stage in an incredibly realistic performance. No detail is forgotten. Additional creatures include other horses, birds, and even a monstrous tank.

The choreography needed to keep all of these elements in play is impressive. At times the production felt like an elaborate dance. Occasionally the players moved in slow motion to increase the dramatic impact of a scene. When one of Joey's riders (yes, the actors actually ride the horse puppets) is blasted off his mount in an enemy attack, another player slowly lifts him into the air and pulls him off stage. With flashing lights, smoke, lots of noise (plus the dramatic scribblings playing out on the hovering screen) the effect is powerful and mesmerizing.

The attention to movement and detail and the emotional storyline make this show a grand spectacle. Drawn in by the acting as well as the puppetry, the audience was laughing, gasping or sniffling throughout the performance. (FYI: If you tend to get teary, bring tissues). I particularly enjoyed the  battlefield scenes, as well as the singer and accordion player who acted as sort of a Greek chorus, moving the story smoothly along between scenes.

I feel like my ramblings have failed to do justice to this fine show. More than simply a play War Horse is truly a unique experience - and not to be missed. If you are in the Tampa area, you can catch War Horse at the Straz through May 5th. Click here for details.

If you are out of town visit WarHorseOnStage.com for a schedule of  upcoming performances. While you are there, have a look around. The site is full of fun facts, videos, music, photographs and other production details to keep you entertained. 


  1. You wrote a marvelous review! I enjoyed reading about the set design from an artist's perspective.

  2. I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but this looks truly amazing! I love the use of 'puppets' and the idea of the actors melding in and out of the background!

  3. oh wow, puppets for big people!

  4. This makes me want to see this definitely!
    Those horses look awesome! Great review!