Joey, Topthorn and the beasts of “War Horse” are intricately crafted creations built of wood, metal, gears and socketry which are then brought magnificently to life by three quite visible actors who are not in costume. They are puppets, but what magnificent puppets they are.
The human characters of “War Horse” are made of cardboard.
Or so it often seems in the celebrated and long-running National Theatre of Great Britain production which continues to gallop its way around the world via tours and long-running sit-down engagements in London, Australia and Berlin. The disparity in interest level between the animals and the two-legged characters is a shaggy-maned conundrum which is not so easy to overlook during the play’s week-long stint at the Pantages Theatre. Oohing and ahhing over the technical wizardry is easy. Engaging with the story, less so.
Granted, this assessment should come as a revelation to exactly nobody who has caught the production either in its first visit to Los Angeles (at the Ahmanson in 2012), on Broadway or internationally. Those magical designs crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company are so crazy majestic (every bit deserving of a special 2011 Tony award) that – like Julie Taymor’s creations for “The Lion King” – you may think you’ve seen them before even if you haven’t.
This may be only the play’s second visit to L.A., but “War Horse” already feels a bit ubiquitous. Steven Spielberg’s (puppet-less) film adaptation preceded “War Horse’s” Ahmanson debut. We were also treated to a “Saturday Night Live” spoof and a rather deft homage proffered by an episode of “The Good Wife.”
Gotta love fame, right?
The real thing is most certainly a spectacle, a huge cast affair with visuals up the wazoo: bangs, crashes, gunfire, bodies falling, bursts of light and a river of schmaltz masquerading as pathos. Adrian Sutton’s folk-inspired music (sung by Spiff Wiegand and John Milosich) beats the drum; we’re on a quest during which we witness the high toll of war. Bijan Sheibani recreates the original co-direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. Under their guidance, Handspring impresarios Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones have put some amazing encounters on stage, most notably Joey the title equine coming face to face with a similarly constructed tank. The sets, costumes and drawings constructed by Rae Smith with lighting and Paul Constable and sound by Christopher Shutt help build an event that is most certainly never boring.
Nonetheless, it’s a little hard to get past the fact that “War Horse” is an elaborately staged missing pet quest. A boy in England has his beloved horse Joey sold to the cavalry at the outset of World War I, and goes to elaborate lengths to track the creature down and bring him home.
To repeat: Boy gets horse. Boy loses horse. People die. Boy and horse are reunited. Curtain.
Not that theater lovers are incapable of swallowing a soppy lost animal tale, but did Nick Stafford (adapting the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo) have to populate his tale with such colorless two-legged individuals? There’s the sympathetic officer (Brendan Murray) who promises to look after Joey after the horse is sold into combat; the German captain turned chaplain (Brooks Brantly) transformed by the horrors of war, the French farm girl (Ka-Ling Cheung) who speaks barely a word of English but humanizes everybody who doesn’t shoot her; the doomed Private (Andy Truchinski) who befriends our hero. On and on it goes. The original children’s story may have layered in a bit more substance, but on stage these come across like archetypes rather than fully realized characters.
Even our hero himself, Albert Narracott, is a bit of a non-entity who can’t exist beyond his horse-mania pursuit of Joey. Michael Wyatt Cox is perfectly serviceable Albert who can bond with his mother Rose (Maria Elena Ramirez) and clash with his cowardly drunk of a father, Ted (Gene Gillette). The love for Joey comes through (although truthfully, they spend more than half the play apart). Cox looks a little mature for us to buy him as a boy much less an underage enlistee. Ditto Cheung. Although this appears to be a cast comprised of Americans as well as Brits, the heavy rural dialects are often unintelligible both spoken and in song.
The horses don’t speak. But they most certainly prance, twitch, exhibit fear and affection. Inhabited, though they are, by human actors, and directed by Toby Sedgwick, they are utterly arresting. Serious kudos, then to Jon Hoche, Brian Robert Burns and Jessica Krueger (as the adult Joey), Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica (Joey the foal) and Danny Yoerges, Patrick Osteen and Dayna Tietzen (Topthorn) who advance the craft of stage artistry with every hoof fall.
“War Horse” plays 8 p.m. today-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Sunday at 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 982-2787, HollywoodPantages.com or Ticketmaster.com.