Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Adapted by Nick Stafford
In Association with Handspring Puppet Company
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (national touring company)
Through July 29, 2012
Los Angeles is the first stop on the national tour of “War Horse.” What new things can one say about a production that has been heralded and discussed so thoroughly in London and New York? Surely it will not come as a surprise that the stagecraft amazes. A life-sized horse puppet, seen first as a foal, then resplendent as a fully grown horse, one that displays nuanced twitches, tail swishes, and a dazzling full gallop carrying an actor on its back, is not something you are likely to have encountered before. It is truly mind grabbing, holding your attention over and above, the drama enfolding.
I would go so far as to say the stagecraft of “War Horse” exceeds the magic of CGI (computer generated imagery) and the grandiose staging of blockbusters such as “Phantom of the Opera.” “How so with nothing but puppets and projections?” you might ask. Well children, gather ye ’round and let me try to explain. CGI and the big productions, like “Phantom” and the Julie Taymor whoppers, impress with the impossible. Big and brash are the operative terms. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the forces behind Handspring Puppet Company, are masters of making the impossible look effortless and the clearly artificial seem real and immediate.
Briefly, the setting is the village of Devon, 1914. The mood is cheerful British self-confidence as soldiers are marching off to war, singing upbeat, inspiring marching tunes the likes of which are probably never heard in a post-war army. There is a horse auction where an irresponsible brother, tapping the mortgage money, outbids snooty and successful brother. You can bet mom is not going to be too happy, especially as the young foal is half thoroughbred and not likely to be much use around the farm. For young son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), however, it is love at first sight. He names the foal Joey and the two form an instant bond; therein lays the tug that has been scheduled for your heart strings. As the war drags on, the optimistic mood withers; more men are called to the front; more men return bloody (or don’t return at all); the music gently saddens. World War I featured a cavalry, despite the fact that warfare had dreamt up weapons that made horses an anachronism and fodder for tanks and the like. You guessed it: Joey is taken for battle and Albert, too young to go at the time, makes it his life’s mission to be with his horse, eventually lying about his age to join up to begin his search for the love of his life. Joey ends up behind enemy lines. Horses lay strewn about the battlefields. Joey is in mortal danger.
To help him find his horse, Albert had sketched Joey and tears out the long white strip of the paper with the drawing on it, showing it to everyone he encounters. The paper is represented as a white slash on the scrim at the rear of the stage. Black-and-white videos are projected on this slash adding a very realistic impression. “Black and white equals realistic?” you cry. But remember, wars prior to Korea are all black and white in our memory. There is no question that video projection has become a valuable tool in modern stagecraft; it is used to particular effect in “War Horse,” the black and white somehow making the desperation and carnage more realistic.
The magic that hits you in the face is the horse puppets. Somehow, with plywood ribbing that has nothing to do with bones, obvious mesh, the legs of two men sticking out from underneath, and a third (completely visible man) manipulating the heads, these horses are completely believable. Sitting on the aisle, as Joey ran up, the horse puppet was as real at two feet as he appeared at a distance on stage. The entire staging is beautifully choreographed, but the horses act like real stage animals with spontaneous movements large and small. It is tough to be a goose with charismatic mega fauna like these horses owning the stage, but leave it to Handspring, a goose with typical goose-like intrusiveness occasionally upstages even Joey.
The New York production was mounted at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center. It is a much more intimate setting and more conducive to drama. Those who have seen “War Horse” in both venues tell me that it was far more affecting in New York than in the cavernous Ahmanson.
“War Horse,” the novel by Michael Morpurgo, was written as a book for teens and tweens. What a wonderful introduction to theater for any kid. However, I am not the first critic to note that older audiences may find it overly sentimental. A pity really. The sophistication of the stagecraft would compliment much more sophisticated material. If you have the good fortune to have a child in tow be sure to bring the Kleenex; you can still enjoy the theater even if it does not grab you in the same way.