This much of what you’ve heard is true: The puppets are astonishing. The National Theatre’s adaptation of a previously little known young-adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse finally arrives in Chicago more than five years after its heralded London debut. Much of the voluble buzz around the play—as it opened additional productions in New York and Toronto, won the 2011 Tony for best play and finally launched the touring production making a brief holiday pit stop at the Cadillac Palace—concerned the life-size and lifelike horses crafted by Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company.
Joey, the majestic animal pal of a Devon lad whose alcoholic dad sells the horse to the British army for service in World War I, is portrayed in stunning fashion as a construction of fabric and cane operated by three puppeteers. He and his fellow horses (chiefly a fellow officer’s mount named Topthorn) are remarkably expressive; the effect upon first seeing these equine “actors” is magical.
But that jolt of wonder isn’t enough to maintain two and a half hours of otherwise ponderous and sentimental storytelling. Nick Stafford’s meandering adaptation gets lost in tangents as Joey traverses France, experiencing the absurdities and atrocities of military engagement, while his young owner enlists to follow him. Bijan Sheibani’s staging of the touring production, based on the original direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, is flat and repetitive. The spectacular elements don’t cohere into satisfying spectacle; the fog of war becomes subsumed by the fog of War Horse.