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Puppets come thrillingly to life in magical ‘War Horse’



When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $30-$97

Info: (800) 775-2000;

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Updated: December 24, 2012 4:08PM

Do not be deceived.

The creatures now galloping onto the stage of the Cadillac Palace Theatre in “War Horse” — the heartwrenching theater spectacle and anti-war screed inspired by Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel, and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford — might be referred to as “puppets.” But these magical creations — devised by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (master artists of South Africa’s fabled Handspring Puppet Company), “choreographed” by Toby Sedgwick and brought to life by a team of extraordinary human performers — are not to be confused with inanimate objects in any way, shape or form.

In fact, they are the fiercely muscled engines of the storytelling here — living, breathing characters in a panoramic story that is, in nearly every way, an intensely adult look at the nature of power, treachery, cruelty and betrayal, as well as love, fidelity and the remarkable bonds that can be forged between animals and their sometimes adoring, sometimes beastly human counterparts.

These massive, lifesize “puppets” grab your heart in the most uncanny way, as teams of performers (two moving inside skeletons of cane, mesh and leather, and one outside) not only carry off near miraculous feats of reverse anthropomorphism, but make you forget completely about the human bodies doing the superhuman work of driving them.

Though it tells the love story of a boy and a horse, this show is really about the domestic wars waged between brothers, and between fathers and sons. And beyond that, it is about hellish grand-scale war — in this case World War I, as fought between the British and Germans who lay waste to each other on battlefields in France.

It all begins in an idyllic-seeming farming village in the English countryside, where a gorgeous young copper-colored hunting horse is bought by one brother to spite another. That foal, who will come to be named Joey, first appears onstage running free — moving on his spindly legs and flicking his tail to get rid of a fly. And very soon he gingerly accepts a bucket of oats from Albert Narracott (a winningly unaffected Andrew Veenstra), the teenage boy who establishes a rare communication with him from the start. But even before the full-grown Joey bursts into view in a stunning moment of theatrical magic, his freedom has been compromised. And his fate — first as a plow horse, and then as an indomitable war horse subjected to every calamity and misery — says everything about the condition of man and beast.

Wth a cast of nearly three dozen under the direction of Bijan Sheibani (who has retrofitted the original staging by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris to fit a proscenium rather than thrust stage), “War Horse” is literally driven by the presence of the horses. The many scenes of family and soldiers are carefully sketched, but the air tends to go out of the show when there are only two-legged creatures engaging with each other. And the sometimes muffled voices of the actors does not help matters.

Yet this is an undeniably great work of art, beginning with the sublime principal “horse teams” which, on opening night, were comprised of Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui for the adult Joey, and Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti and Aaron Haskell for Topthorn, the haughty black stallion. These puppeteers’ grace, articulation, coordination, strength and stamina are breathtaking. Solid portrayals come from Todd Cerveris and Angela Reed as Albert’s parents, Brian Keane and Michael Wyatt Cox as his uncle and cousin, Andrew May as the German officer with a heart, and Alex Morf as Albert’s pal in the trenches.

There is exceptional beauty in Rae Smith’s innovative sets and drawings which take the form of sketchook fragments (overlaid with animation and projections by 59 Productions) that stretch across the stage to form an ever-shifting landscape — heavenly at moments, but all too often streaked with explosions, and blood and the blood-red poppies of remembrance.

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