Near the end of “War Horse,’’ Joey, the magnificent chestnut steed of the title, struggles in wild desperation after he becomes enmeshed in barbed wire.
It is one of many unforgettable images in “War Horse,’’ now at Boston Opera House, and the force with which it hits home stems only partly from the fact that we have grown very fond of Joey by that point.
The sights and sounds of battle have seldom been rendered more vividly than in this remarkable show, a national touring production presented by Broadway In Boston and directed by Bijan Sheibani. A lot of ingenious stagecraft has been put to very powerful use, with image after blindingly sudden image of combat and its casualties, human and animal, that capture the chaos, futility, and waste of war.
The wondrous horse puppets designed by the Handspring Puppet Company are not just life-sized but compellingly lifelike. Even as a foal, glimpsed through a swirling mist on the Opera House stage, Joey has charisma to burn. Though he and the other horses, including an imposing rival named Topthorn, are operated by puppeteers who are plainly visible, after a while you almost forget they’re there. I can’t think of any greater testament to their skill.
“War Horse’’ became a big hit on Broadway and galloped off with five Tony Awards last year, including an undeserved Tony for best play. That laurel should have gone to David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People’’ or Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The [Expletive] With the Hat’’ or Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.’’
Nick Stafford’s script for “War Horse,’’ adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, is not in the same class as those three dramas. The spectacle’s the thing with “War Horse.’’ But what a spectacle it is.
It’s likely Tony voters were following their hearts, not their heads. That’s certainly what happens to Albert Narracott, the 16-year-old son of an English farm family, ardently portrayed by Andrew Veenstra.
After Albert’s loutish father buys Joey at an auction, the youth forges a bond with the foal, enticing the skittish animal to eat by plunging his own head into a pail. In one skillfully executed scene, Joey transforms in an instant from colt to full-grown horse. If anything, he becomes more soulful and expressive. “Joey and Albert, together forever,’’ the boy says at one point. But they are separated when Albert’s father sells Joey to the British Army, which puts him in harm’s way as a cavalry horse. Albert promptly joins the army himself and sets out to find his beloved horse.
What the two have in common is resiliency, a quality that will be severely tested as horse and youth undergo harrowing ordeals in the trenches and on the battlefields of World War I.
In the second act, Joey and Topthorn end up in the hands of the German Army. The play’s focus shifts from Albert to a Captain Friedrich Muller, played by Andrew May, who has had his fill of death.
“This war is meant to make men, but I am half the man I was,’’ he says. The officer arranges for the two horses to pull ambulances rather than face the slaughter of the front lines, and tries to do the same for himself by assuming the identity of a dead orderly. “War Horse’’ loses some momentum at this point, though the shift to the German perspective does make clear how universally miserable the experience of war is.
“War Horse’’ illustrates the one-sided brutality of the collision between old styles of warfare, represented by the horse cavalry, and new, lethal technology, epitomized by a poison gas attack and a massive tank that moves remorselessly across the stage in act two.
But “War Horse’’ eventually holds out hope for us sorry humans, offering a contrived scene of peacetime reconciliation and a reunion between boy and horse that is likely to leave you choked up.