playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, the Tony Award-winning play War Horse is an intense love story
between man and horse, rivaling the theory that dog is man’s best friend. Whether or not you’ve already seen the movie
has no bearing on this imaginative yet dramatic piece because the theatrical
production is a brilliant work of art.
story centers around a boy named Albert (Andrew
Veenstra) whose father, Ted (Todd
Cerveris), spends his family’s mortgage money on a young horse for his
son. Albert is immediately taken by the
foal, which he dubs Joey, and is so overwhelmed with adoration for the horse
that when his father nearly loses the animal in a bet, Albert is determined to
keep his beloved equestrian by his side.
His small victory is short-lived when Ted exchanges Joey for a large sum
of money, sending him off as an unsuspecting four-legged soldier of World War I. What follows is an agonizing journey of
survival in which a boy is forced to become a man, plagued by the gut-wrenching
horrors he has witnessed, yet comforted by the joyful memories of his past.
one of the largest casts of any non-musical production to come out of Broadway
in recent years, War Horse is filled
with terrific acting, Andrew Veenstra a clear standout for his raw emotion as the
innocent Albert. However, what’s so
impressively jaw-dropping about this production is not the acting, but the
puppeteering. Up to three actors are
operating each horse on stage at any given time, which may seem like a crowded
and clumsy comedy of errors. However,
with help from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, those actors both
vocalizing and embodying the horses perform an elaborate and carefully
choreographed dance that is such perfection the audience becomes lost in the
illusion, believing wholeheartedly it is in the presence of live animals.
shape, size and contour of the five life-sized horse puppets, crafted from such
materials as steel and leather, shows Handspring’s enormous attention to detail
and a deep respect for the animals themselves.
As a foal, Joey (operated on
opening night by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica) breathes,
his chest rising and falling with every new emotion. He makes tentative steps backwards and
forwards as a young foal would. His ears
move individually, his tail swishes and it’s easy to mistake him for a real-life
horse. The only thing more impressive
than Joey as a foal is the sturdy adult Joey (played on opening night by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob
Laqui). The moment this massive
equestrian trots on stage, the audience exhales a collective sigh of awe and approval. Puppets of such an elaborate and elegant
nature rarely grace the stage; Joey is truly a sight to be seen.
applaud the decision to dress the puppeteers in period costumes rather than all
in black. This bold yet fitting choice
allows the audience to faze them out and concentrate on the puppets, whereas
attempting to hide the actors behind ski masks and gloves would have served as
a distraction and made the whole production somehow less real.
I haven’t seen the Academy Award-nominated movie version of War Horse (itself based on a 1982
children’s book), in many ways, this play seems better suited for the screen,
as a barrage of characters, locations and dates results in short scenes that
may have been confusing were it not for a well-placed digital screen
backdrop. Torn like a strip of paper
from Albert’s bequeathed sketchbook, the screen depicts pencil drawings of the
settings and keeps the audience apprised of the date and season, all of which
are historically significant to the play.
The remaining set design is minimal, a genius decision that keeps one’s
focus on the beautiful puppets where it belongs.
beautiful imagery in War Horse is
complemented by haunting music sung at key moments throughout the production by
a Song Man (John Milosich) and a
variety of much smaller puppets supplements the visuals, including Goose (operated by Jon Hoche), the comic
stunningly violent,” I heard a man say as I walked out of the theatre after the
standing ovation. “It’s like a poem,”
another woman said. Both opinions are
true. Though War Horse isn’t necessarily the most poetic title for this poignant
play—and play isn’t quite the right
word for this production either—it must be noted that war is a significant part
of the performance, as are bright flashing lights, gunshots and other loud
sound effects. Keep youngsters at bay
and make your outing to War Horse an
adult appreciation of imagination and artistry.
War Horse is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre
through July 29. Performances are
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1
pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets range from $20
to $150 and are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org,
by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213-628-2772 or in person
at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center.