Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
A Must-See: “War Horse” proves live theater’s power
Every once in a long while a theatrical production provides a perfect symmetry of engrossing material, exquisite visual presence and what can only be called magic. In those moments it transcends any other medium of communication or entertainment on the planet, as only in theater can an audience’s suspension of disbelief become a tangible element. Shakespeare knew about this. “On your imaginary forces work…” he says in Henry V.”Think when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth…”
“War Horse,” the extraordinary stage play adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s fancifully serious book, provides the perfect illustration of this concept. Now at the Ahmanson Theatre, its breathtaking images, its tight ensemble performances, its touching and surprisingly unsentimental look at the human spirit in the inhumanity of total war, and its absolutely amazing puppetry set it apart in glorious ways. If you have any interest in or love for the theater as an art form, this is a play which must be seen.
“War Horse” is the tale of a boy and a horse and the impact upon them of the most devastating war England has ever fought. Yet, saying that is to say very little. Albert Narracott’s impulsive father buys him a horse the family doesn’t need and really can’t afford, mostly to spite Albert’s uncle. It falls to Albert to raise and train Joey, the horse, and the two bond in a specific and intense way. With the advent of World War I, and despite promises to the contrary, Joey is sold to the cavalry, followed soon by the heartbroken Albert. Thus these two friends are separately plunged into a surreal world defined by the stench of death.
The extraordinary concept dreamt up by original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and puppet designers/directors Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company comes to fruit in the hands of a set of equally extraordinary puppeteers, who make not only Joey but several other horse-characters come to startling life. Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica introduce us to Joey as a skittish, impulsive foal. Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui give emotional depth to the full-grown Joey – a horse that, like the others, it is possible to ride on. The subtlety of sound, the intricacy of design, all move together to create as non-cartoonish a set of non-human characters as you will ever see.
Competing on an even plain with all of that, and thereby saving the play from devolving into gimmickry, is a strong and strongly ensemble cast. Essentially, since they treat the puppet animals as real, so do we, and the story begins to matter more than anything else.
Andrew Veenstra makes a poignantly naive Albert, with his passion for his horse becoming a palpable thing. Nods also go to Angela Reed, as Albert’s all-suffering, practical mother, and Todd Cerveris as his ineffective, angry father. Andrew May finds an interesting balance as the conflicted German cavalry officer whose appreciation of horses becomes his downfall, while Lavita Shaurice captures the essence of the innocent civilian balancing fear and fascination, yet caught in the maelstrom.
Lest you think this is all about the grim reality of war, there is considerable laughter, particularly involving the family goose as maneuvered by Jon Hoche. Singer John Milosich, as the Song Man, helps cement the feel of the thing as a country story, long-told. Around all of these swells the rest of a large and fascinating cast, riding the ballad that this tale becomes.
Visually, even beyond the puppets, this is a beautifully, savagely, elementally theatrical experience. Rae Smith’s sketchbook set, as representational as the horses, takes us from village to farm to battlefield with a stroke of a pencil, and yet we are truly there, right down to the “gas” which floats out over the audience.
But even all that has been said here cannot do justice to this production. That it won 5 Tonys is not a surprise. And if you know this story only from the Spielberg film, this is different. Indeed, Morpurgo was fascinated by how each script differed from his book, and from each other. What this is, frankly, is a treatise on what makes theater valuable as an art form. It’s also an engrossing story which I defy you to see to the end without having to search for a tissue at least once: wrenchingly heartfelt, managing to be both deeply personal and epic at the same time.
In short, you need to see “War Horse.” It is theater at its best. It tells a compelling story. It has set the bar for what will come after. It will linger in your bones.
What: “War Horse” When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays (except July 4), 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. with added performances 2 p.m. Thursday July 5, 19 and 26 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $150 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org