War Horse/based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo/adapted by Nick Stafford/in association with Handspring Puppet Company/original co-direction by Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris/US tour directed by Bijan Sheibani/@ Ahmanson Theatre/through July 29
Storytelling on stage is at its theatrical best when all the technical elements utilized blend together so smoothly that you take for granted that they are there at all. Such is the case with the amazing War Horse, based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo in which a young boy Albert (Andrew Veenstra) attempts to groom his foal Joey to adulthood as a farm horse, only to lose him to the ravages of World War I in England and France. Boy gets horse, boy falls in love with horse, boy loses horse, but... If you love animals and understand and respect what transpires deepdown between man and beast, you will love War Horse, as, in spite of the war horrors depicted, love is at the very core and champions above all else. Now in its US tour, War Horse is fortunately with us at the Ahmanson through July 29 only, and this beautiful production must not be missed.
Puppetry is what makes the horses - four + the foal - come to vibrant life on stage. Thirty + actors play the people in the villages and soldiers, and some alternate as puppeteers of the horses or crows or an appealing pet goose. Watching them make the horses jump or gallop, or simply stand still and eat oats or whinny is startlingly incredible. What I saw before me was a horse, not a puppet. If you let your imagination take you there, it will assuredly happen. A huge screen above serves astoundingly to show battleships, movement of troops across borders or horses jumping barbed wire as they escape a barrage of machine-gun fire. It works fluidly from stage to screen and vice versa without missing a beat as director Bijan Sheibani brilliantly orchestrates the sweeping piece with music, at times so operatic, yet retaining a consistent cinematic flow.
Standouts in the brilliant ensemble include Veenstra as Albert, the boy who must become a man much too soon, Angela Reed as the caring mother, Brian Keane as the troubled father, Alex Morf as Private David who becomes Albert's buddy, Michael Wyatt Cox as cousin Billy who tries more than anything to make his father proud of him, Lavita Shaurice as little Emilie, the French girl who loses her home and befriends Joey and Andrew May as Captain Friedrich Muller, a German deserter who stands far and above his German comrades.
Certain plot elements of the novel do not make it to the stage like Albert pinning his father's medals to Joey or an overall better understanding of where the father is coming from. As is, we see him as a bitter alcoholic and hate his guts for selling Joey to the army behind Albert's back. It must be remembered that he had to pay the mortgage on his farm, and that desperate times call for desperate measures. Nonetheless, despite an unclear picture of his character, what amazes the senses on the stage is the grand theatricality, the awesome puppetry, the undeniably grim aspects of the spectacle of war and the basic positive wellspring of love that makes survival so joyfully sweet. War Horse will tug at your heartstrings and keep you artistically fulfilled for years to come.