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'War Horse' is a triumphant ride

The horse Joey trots across the stage during his curtain call for the opening night performance of "War Horse" at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo Getty Images)

Remind anyone who has just watched almost three hours of staged drama unfold in the Opera House that no horses or other animals were injured in the making of "War Horse," and you might be met with more than a little righteous indignation. We know they're just puppets, after all. But given that Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel was based on a true story of a horse trained for combat in the First World War, the recognition that the grisly realities of battle were devastating to both humanity and equine alike is especially bitter.

It doesn't matter if you've read the book or if you caught last year's Steven Spielberg film or not -- the National Theatre of Great Britain's superb production is uniquely epic. It's still the same riveting story of a young boy and his beloved thoroughbred, separated by sale to the British army for service in Calais, France, and spanning six long, hard years of war. Elegantly adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, here we watch as our four-legged hero is jockeyed back and forth between both sides of the war, a silent witness to flashing bayonets, barbed wire and bloodshed. Meanwhile, his loyal friend Albert (Andrew Veenstra), who is still underage, unwittingly enlists in the army, determined to find him.

That kind of powerful connection between human and animal is palpable enough on paper or on screen. But here, as told on a bare stage through ingenious skeletal puppetry that wholeheartedly conjures up the majesty of the animal kingdom, we see a "War Horse" that feels alive.

'War Horse'
Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
When: Through Nov. 11
Info: $25 to $175; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

That's partly due to the creative team of designers and builders at the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa, while the "movement direction" and horse choreography is credited to Toby Sedgwick. But the evening is also emotionally orchestrated by director Bijan Sheibani, who packs a dramatic punch with moments both incredibly poignant and profound.

The characters come and go as though in a dream, a cloudy carousel of names and faces, some of them crooning haunting folk songs from Adrian Sutton and John Tams. Veenstra turns in a fine performance in his principal role, and while the entire cast of "War Horse" puts in its fair share of work onstage, the most intense and rewarding labor is carried out by a small village of agile puppeteers, who literally breathe life into their equine counterparts.

Their efforts are beyond compelling and directly speak to the magic of live theater. In a one-of-a-kind experience that urges us to consider more than just the human cost of war, "War Horse" reminds us that just as soldiers experienced the horrors of WWI -- isolation, enemy attacks, fear, death, loss, famine, hope -- so did their horses.