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Sturdy, stirring 'War Horse' at the Hippodrome

Early in "War Horse," the much-celebrated play now at the Hippodrome, a British farm boy named Albert tries to befriend Joey, a foal that his father bought with money intended for a mortgage payment. The anxious animal keeps his distance, but Albert is determined to breach the divide.

After several attempts, the boy holds some feed behind his back, and the wary Joey slowly approaches. The whole scene produces a rare kind of theatrical magic, enough to make you quickly forget that the foal is a puppet operated by three humans, two inside and one out.

If that moment, with all its charm and innocence, doesn't get to you, doesn't tug at whatever heartstrings you have, you may be in for a very uncomfortable ride. Come to think of it, even if it does affect you, you'll still be in for a very uncomfortable ride. "War Horse" is no happy little trot in the countryside.

A whole lot of bad stuff starts to happen very quickly to characters, those with two or four feet. This boy-and-his-horse story moves from the relative calm of 1912 Devonshire to 1914 France, where vast armies of men willingly charged into a vast slaughterhouse and, in equally appalling numbers, took horses with them.

Although based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, this impressive play, which originated at the National Theatre of Great Britain, tells an awfully grown-up, tense and often brutal tale. For some reason, it didn't seem quite so dark when I first saw it; reliving it at the Hippodrome, I found the experience tougher, more disturbing. Maybe it's the timing.

This being the year of World War I's centennial, the show can't help but gain extra weight. It doesn't take much searching to learn that of the million horses the British shipped to the Continent, for use in the cavalry or to haul equipment, only 62,000 returned.

The most remarkable part about "War Horse" — apart from the justly famous puppetry — may be the way it faces that reality head-on, right down to the ugly mercy killing of unfortunate creatures.

If only it didn't feel quite so manipulative much of the time, with Adrian Sutton's movie score-like music rising up ominously for good measure to underline cruel turns of fate.

The folksier touches, including bursts of humor and a singer who wanders through the action like a Greek chorus with accordion backup (the evocative songs are by John Tams), can also seem forced.

Still, it is hard to resist the overall pull of this epic, with its classic conflicts between father and son, man and animal, duty and dreams. And its ability to show how easily the lines between good and evil can blur — symbolized so powerfully by the dreaded No Man's Land separating armies, a spot that becomes a key focal point late in the play.

Above all, it is downright impossible to resist those horses, crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company. The full-grown Joey and his wartime buddy Topthorn are marvels of equine nobility and grace, responsive to everything and everyone. You can’t take your eyes off of them.

The sturdy, well-honed touring production, directed by Bijan Sheibani (based on the original staging by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), offers plenty of other visual engagement.

Rae Smith’s set creates a good deal of atmosphere, mostly without reliance on props. And the several, superbly lit combat scenes take on choreographic breadth, as if underscoring how oddly close the spellings of "battle" and "ballet" are.

Michael Wyatt Cox isn't totally persuasive as a 16-year-old Albert, but he makes the character quite engaging nonetheless, especially in Act 2. (On opening night, Cox and several others in the cast sounded as if they were struggling with colds.)

Gene Gillette does effective work as Albert’s brutish father, while Maria Elena Ramirez nicely conveys the tenderness of Albert's mother. Andy Truschinski is a colorful David, Albert's foxhole buddy. And Andrew May gives a sympathetic portrayal of the conflicted German officer, Capt. Muller, who loses his taste for war after seeing its toll on defenseless civilians and animals alike.

The real stars, of course, are the puppet teams. They move and think as one, seamlessly coordinating every head-turn and lift of a hoof, giving each gesture and sound a perfectly natural quality.

The combination of superb stagecraft and well-honed performances make "War Horse" an eventful experience in the theater. Meaningful, too. Maybe it's heavy-handed and obvious, but the play delivers an ever-timely reminder of just how beastly humans can behave. The story of Albert and Joey and their unbreakable bond shows us how much better we can do.

Performances continue through Sunday.

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