A large slash of white, like a torn out section of a book, hovers over the stage of "War Horse," which is currently playing at the Academy of Music.
This stark, simple imagery is fitting for this production, which originated at the National Theatre in London before becoming a hit on Broadway.
Combining cutting edge technology with simple minimalist theatrics, this is a unique theatrical experience unlike any other, an engrossing, compelling, unforgettable night of theater.
For those who have not experienced Michael Morpurgo’s novel or Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film adaptation, "War Horse" tells the story of a boy and his horse, and how the horrors of World War I separate the two.
Before the tale’s emotional end, the titular horse Joey will have fought on both sides of the war and been subjected to a number of horrors, including machine guns, tanks and barbed wire. It is not an original tale, but Nick Stafford’s adaptation is filled with the sentimentality and determination that Broadway audiences love.
However, with its lengthy time span, rotating cast of characters -- many of whom are quickly dispatched with a simple bullet -- and reliance on gigantic animals and machines, the story does not cry out for a stage adaptation.
This makes the Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’ production all the more amazing. Despite the large number of human characters populating the stage, the real stars of the show are the horses, which are the ingenious creation of the Handspring Puppet Company.
Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones’ design of the horses is one of the most striking theatrical images in years. Life-size and gasp-inducing, they gallop, kick, fall and move in ways that are never less than fully convincing.
The burly, expressive puppeteers -- three to a horse -- create living creatures that feel as real, and in many ways more expressive, than the real horse currently featured in "The Music Man" at the Walnut Street Theatre.
But the theatrical invention does not stop there. Using the aforementioned white slash as a projection board with which to establish setting, time period and mood, the story is told on a bare stage, with scenic designer Rae Smith’s sly use of barely-seen black curtains moving the action along at a breakneck pace.
From scene to scene, an amazing visual is created out of innovation, whether it be lighting designer Paule Constable’s use of reveals, 59 Productions’ animations of Smith’s scenic drawings, or, in a truly breathtaking moment, the sudden emergence of a puppet replicating a life-size tank.
In all this grandeur, it would seem that the human characters would be overshadowed. However, several performances stand out. Andrew Veenstra’s Albert Naracott does an excellent job of helping the audience fall in love with Joey, and Andrew May’s Freidrich Muller, Angela Reed’s Rose Narracott, and Alex Morf’s David Taylor deliver sympathetic portrayals throughout.
Still, the biggest applause of the night went to Brian Robert Burns, Gregory Manley and Danny Yoerges, and with good reason. The three men worked together to create Joey, and in doing so, they have created one of the most unique and fully realized performances of our time.
"War Horse" runs through Dec. 2 at the Academy of Music at 240 South Broad Street in Philadelphia. For info and tickets, call 215-893-1999 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org.