"War Horse," like any fine stallion, has a award winning pedigree, and has won the trifecta in terms of the mediums in which its tale has been told. It began as a novel 28 years ago, was staged as a play at The National Theatre in London 5 years ago, and last year received a motion picture adaptation courtesy of Steven Spielberg. On Friday, it finally made its Los Angeles theatre debut, with the premiere of the National Tour at LA's Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre.
It's easy to see why this story grabs audiences attention and emotions, whether readers, theatre-goers or movie patrons. The thrilling narrative of a boy, Albert, who trains and becomes best friend's with his beloved horse, Joey, only to have his father sell it to the British Cavalry in the midst of World War I, is deeply touching. As we follow both Joey through the war, and Albert's quest to reunite with his horse and bring it home, you cannot help but feel the anguish of these two characters and the formidable bond they share.
What makes this piece such an amazing piece of theatre, however, which can not be replicated in a novel or on a movie screen, is the incredible work of the Handspring Puppet Company, which brings Joey and the other horses to life in a way that is truly remarkable to witness and emotional to endure. While it's amazing to see Joey trot, gallop and rise up on his hind legs as he moves with simplistic beauty across the stage, it is the subtlest movements – like the rhythmic chest rise to signify Joey's every breath - that make you watch in wonder and delight at the immense creativity and artistry involved in bringing this mighty beast to life.
Further enhancing the production are the amazing animation and projection design by 59 Productions, which takes simple pencil sketch drawings and animates them in a way that makes the setting come to life in as clever a way as the puppets do the horses. What makes both of these elements work so effectively is that they rise above their abstractions so we see them in a new, fantastical way.
The shame in this production, however, is that neither the words of the play, nor the actors who speak them, ever rise to the same level of brilliance as the puppetry or the projections. Too often the play, adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, and directed in this instance by Bijan Sheibani (based on the original direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris) is heavy-handed in its narrative, and doesn't allow the subtleties of the story to play out without beating the audience into submission to get the point across. Additionally, it never seems to allow the human characters to become more than a two-dimensional caricatures with lots of broad expressions and shouting by the actors, as if that is the most effective way to emote and convey the intentions of their character.
Despite these faults, however, at it's best, "War Horse" is an evening full of magical brilliance that reminds you why live theatre can be so powerfully dynamic and beautiful.
Running now through July 29, 2012 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., in downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center. For purchase tickets, and to get a complete performance schedule, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.com, or by calling 213-628.2772.
Photo Credit: Brinkhoff