By DAN STAHL
This month, children's novelist Michael Morpurgo may be the most prominent author in New York. The stage adaptation of his book War Horse, about a young man and his horse surviving World War I, has been on Broadway since March, and Steven Spielberg's film adaptation arrives on Christmas Day. Meanwhile, 59E59 is presenting Farm Boy, a War Horse sequel that follows the young man's family through several generations.
In all cases, it's evident why Morpurgo's work is so alluring: His books tell sweeping, emotional stories that blend epic adventure with intimate relationships. "He has an innate storytelling, dramatic quality within his writing." says Daniel Buckroyd, artistic director of Britain's New Perspectives Theatre Company, which is producing Farm Boy. Buckroyd adapted and directed the material, and true to Morpurgo's spirit, he says he wants it to be an exercise in "good old honest storytelling, as though we were gathered round the campfire."
That welcoming vibe reaches audience members before the play even begins. As they find their seats, a young man onstage tinkers with a tractor while an old bloke relaxes in a chair. The idea, Buckroyd explains, is to evoke a farmyard that the audience happens to have strolled by. "What we've tried to do, very gently, is just put the audience into the role of the person who's wandered past the barn door on this day."
He continues, "When the young man turns around from working on the tractor and catches sight of us at the door of the barn on our way through, and sees us interested in what this tractor is, and why he's working on it, today's the day he opens the story up."
The show actually follows multiple stories, each a piece of the young man's family history. We learn that he's the great grandson of Albert, the hero of War Horse, and we follow several generations of the family's triumphs and hardships throughout the twentieth century.
Buckroyd says the genealogical reach of the play is vital to its meaning: "The piece is about the succession of a family farm, the continuation of a family line which has ostensibly broken at the generation between the grandfather and the grandson." Through stories---reading, writing, and telling them---the characters reconnect that line.
Will Farm Boy's straightforward tales of country life resonate in a metropolis teeming with iPod-listening, Bluetooth-chatting, subway-cramming speedwalkers? Absolutely, Buckroyd believes. "Although many, many people who come see the show here at 59E59 won't themselves have a direct experience of rural or agricultural background, I suspect lots of them will have that buried somewhere within their family," he says. "Because, let's face it, the USA, like the UK, has that deep within its heritage."
Besides, he adds, Farm Boy is "a celebration of not only that setting and lifestyle but also of storytelling, of the passing down of family myths and family yarns. We all have that; we'll all appreciate that."
Dan Stahl is a writer based in New York City