To describe "War Horse" as awesome is to regret the word's devaluation as praise for a good burger or a pretty haircut. This extravaganza at the Lincoln Center Theater, based on a 1982 English children's book by Michael Morpurgo, is awe-inspiring both as a blast of pure theatrical imagination and as a deep gut-kick about lost innocence in war.

No matter what you may have heard about the horse puppetry in this recast smash from London's National Theatre, the creatures created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa are likely to feel more real -- and more quietly eloquent -- than a lot of people we think we know in plays.

Directed without an extra gesture by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, Nick Stafford's adaptation tells the simple story of a poor country boy named Albert (beautifully played by Seth Numrich) whose beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry in World War I. The boy lies about his age to enlist and, from 1914 to 1918, the two separately struggle through the intimate horror of the trenches and barbed wire to modern killing by machine-guns and tanks.

All this realistic horror -- and real magic -- is told with an exquisite minimum of scenery, little more than people power, a turntable and films projected on a ragged plank hanging above the semicircle stage. The effect combines the lean storytelling humanity of "Nicholas Nickleby" with some of the inventive animism admired in "The Lion King." Each horse is made to breathe, to twitch, to appear to understand, by three people -- two inside and one outside.

From the start, even the pastoral countryside is marred by the stupid vanity of people, including Albert's well-meaning jealous drunk of a father (Boris McGiver) and preening uncle (T. Ryder Smith). And even in the worst parts of the war, universal kindness comes through in the disillusioned German (Peter Hermann).

If you love horses, the tearing-up may well begin with the first sight of Joey as a frisky, dark-eyed chestnut foal snuffling out his new world in the English countryside. But those who don't weep for creatures also may be well advised to bring a hankie.

As the wandering peasant woman with the fiddle sings, we are "only remembered for what we have done." The best of Broadway will be remembered for this one.

WHAT "War Horse"

WHERE Lincoln Center Theater

INFO $75-$125; 212-239-6200;


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