War Horse: Prepare to be Mesmerized

War Horse  at the Ahmanson Theatre through July 29th

When we encounter a solid combination of theatre-of-meaning and theatre-of-feeling coupled in brilliant staging, one must sit back and gasp as what could have gone wrong, but didn’t.  This is War Horse, with a huge ensemble and sensitive direction, making its theatricality the point and allowing us mere humans to grasp larger issues, such as war is hell on horses as well as on people.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel, this extraordinary dramatic spectacle, adapted by Nick Stafford, truly has to be seen to be appreciated.  In this era of bad reality TV and over-the-top huzzas given to art-mediocrity, it’s difficult for critics to stretch our vocabularies strongly enough to essentially say to you:  you will never seen this before and the epic quality of this stage production will not be replicated next year in a community production, so buckle-down, pay the amount asked, and be mesmerized as well as electrified.

The story, much better told than the Oscar-nominated film version from Steven Spielberg, is about a teenager in pre-WWI England and the horse he grows to love; a thoroughbred who becomes a farm-horse and, eventually, a pawn for both sides of the incredibly stupid war that killed millions of humans and hundreds-of-thousands of horses (who knew that before this project?).  And for what?, except sowing the seeds of WWII, twenty years on.

So, in the broadest of categories, it’s an anti-war play.  But putting the plot-line onto the fate of two horses humanizes it in ways we are not usually aware of.  And the brilliance of the production is reflected in the puppet-horses, six in all – four adult and two foals.  Extraordinarily crafted by Handspring Puppet Company (Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones), based in South Africa, with actors manipulating the head, legs, backbone, etc, the reality of these animals, while stage-made, is manifestly real: you believe these are real horses, galloping around the stage, two with males riding on top.  It’s exactly what theatre is supposed to do: allow us our “willing suspension of disbelief” so that we may say, almost as a cliché, this has to be seen to be believed; so believe it and go!

The U.S. tour has been directed by Bijan Sheibani, based on the original U.K. direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.  Whoever is ultimately responsible for what we in Los Angeles (next:  San Francisco) saw, it was gorgeous, on a flat stage with projections on the upstage cyclorama and actors holding fences or barbed-wire and the such in front of it, forcing most of the action downstage where it can be best seen.

As this is a non-star company, everyone has much to do, whether it’s singing in unison, or by solo, songs which sound authentic to period (music by Adrian Sutton, songs by John Tams), acting individually or in multiple roles, all is solidly professional.  Andrew Veenstra is Billy, the farm-boy who loses his horse, due to his father’s inflated ego (played impeccably by Todd Cerveris), and finds him during the war; Alex Morf is his best friend in the trenches; Lavita Shauice is the young French girl who owns Joey for a short while; and Cerveris, again, is the German officer who saves both horses lives, while losing his own.  A huge cast (financially unfeasible these days, you would think), excellent basic costume design (Rea Smith, also the set designer), etc.

You have every good reason to exult in this production, so do yourself the favor and see it while you can.

War Horse plays at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Avenue (at Temple Avenue), downtown Los Angeles, through July 29th, 2012.  Tickets:  www.CentertheatreGroup.com or 213.628.2772.

Pictures to be found at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/press/pressphotos.aspx.