Alex Furber (left) horses around with Joey (Brad Cook) in superb War Horse.
WAR HORSE based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford (National Theatre of Great Britain/Mirvish). At the Princess of Wales (300 King West). To June 30. $35-$130. 416-872-1212, mirvish.com. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
You've heard a variation on the story before - boy gets horse, boy loses horse, etc. But you've never seen a miracle of stagecraft like War Horse, presented by Mirvish at the Princess of Wales.
Thanks to the artistry of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, by the end of the show you forget that the stars - the horses, of course - are puppets, each manipulated by three actors. Even when they're not front and centre, the animals are constantly flicking their tails, swinging their heads, breathing.
That's not the only technical achievement. Walk into the theatre and all you see onstage is a white swath of what looks like cloth on the back wall. In the design by Rae Smith, lit by Paule Constable, projections contribute to spectacular scenes, sometimes realistic, as in the battlefields, and other times abstract, as in the devastating splashes of blood. It all unfolds to Adrian Sutton's hugely compelling music, with interludes of English songs led by Melanie Doane.
Oh right, there's a narrative. When his father Ted (Brad Rudy) overbids for a foal - he's vying with his estranged brother for the animal - putting the family farm in peril, Albert (Alex Furber) is left to care for the horse he calls Joey, eventually training him to pull a plow.
As the bells toll the onset of the first world war, Ted, who can't resist the cash, sells Joey to the British cavalry, prompting Albert to sign up for the army so he can find the animal.
The second act, which focuses on the war-is-hell motif, makes a point of humanizing the enemy: a German officer (Patrick Galligan) deserts because he can't bear how the horses are being treated as they haul wagons laden with weapons and injured soldiers through the muck. A sequence in which German and British soldiers compete for the privilege of freeing a horse from barbed wire takes no sides.
The performances are strong, especially from Furber as the boy determined to rescue Joey, and Tamara Bernier Evans as his stoic mother.
Though the love story between boy and animal is compelling enough, it's the underpinning anti-war theme that gives War Horse added emotional weight. We are all animals in war. Actually, animals may be better communicators.
Me? I wept at the magic theatre can create.