'Horse' of a different color

"War Horse" By Nick Stafford • At the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, NYC • Open-Ended Run
You probably won't ever forget the ears. If you've seen Lincoln Center's beautifully calibrated recreation of the London stage hit, "War Horse," arguably the best puppet show anyone has ever seen, some aspects of the stage magic may fade a bit with the passage of time.

The eloquent ears of Joey, however, the production's primary character, are likely to remain with you for life, although it's difficult to explain precisely why. Joey is the bay foal who matures into the magnificent creature who dominates the stage over the course of the two hours and 40 minutes it takes to tell the tale.

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Those ears manage to reflect with amazing precision the animal's emotional and psychological state, sometimes relaxed and slightly tulip-like, at other moments rigid and forward-leaning when alerted, slicked back against his head when alarmed, and so forth.

Among the most active responses the Beaumont audience has to any single moment in the production occurs when Joey, as a colt, morphs into his full adult splendor and takes complete command of the stage.

What's offered, delivered by a cast of 35 human performers, is a love story involving a sensitive, lonely farm boy, Albert Narracott, and the horse he raises, trains, and adores, just before the outbreak of the Great War.

"War Horse" has been designed by Rae Smith, and tastefully directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. The all-important horses are the work of South Africa's astonishing Handspring Puppet Company, headed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones.

The first act takes place mainly in England, in and around the Narracott farm, while the second is concentrated on the "western front" of World War I, a vast area which stretched 440 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

In those years of "the War to End All Wars," the western front was a dismal expanse of trenches, dug-outs, and barbed-wire fences, with an area known as "no man's land" between them.

"War Horse" has been adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo's young-adult novel, first published in 1982. Morpurgo's book tells the story from Joey's point of view, which was impossible, taking into consideration the fact that the six horses seen on stage are complicated, brilliantly rendered puppets, made of cane and silk and leather.

Each of the horses is operated by three men, all of them visible to the audience. As the story progresses, it becomes easy to believe that Joey and his fellow equines are real, and not a product of puppetry.

Joey is sold, as many horses were, to the army and sent to France. The second act of "War Horse" deals with the animal's separation from Albert, gracefully played by Seth Numrich, and their eventual reconciliation.

What the book's intended readers are unlikely to grasp is the pure horror of World War I, one of the most wasteful and destructive combats in history.

At its best, "War Horse" comes reasonably close to achieving some of the emotional power of Erich Maria Remarque's eloquent pacifist novel, "All Quiet on the Western Front," which deals with German boys' experiences as soldiers during WWI.

"War Horse" has met with such positive public response that the production has been extended on an indefinite basis, which is what happened with the Lincoln Center revival of "South Pacific" a few seasons ago.