Albert (Andrew Veenstra) was there when the foal (Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, Nick Lamedica) was brought to the auction square. He admired it from a far, but he never dreamed that his father Arthur (Brian Keane) would buy it. They were in town to purchase a work horse for plowing the fields. But Arthur’s intoxicated desire to one-up his brother Ted (Todd Cerveris), who had outbid all other competitors, resulted in Albert’s dream come true; the young horse was theirs. The return home was greeted by an emotional tirade from wife and mother Rose (Angela Reed) who saw nothing but the loss of the mortgage once again thanks to Arthur’s stubbornness. However, unwilling to break her son’s heart and save a little of her husband’s pride, she agrees to let the horse stay, so long as Albert takes care of it. Albert officially names the horse Joey.
Albert and Joey (Christopher Mai, Derek Straton, Rob Laqui) become inseparable in the next two years, forging a remarkable bond and even they own language. But the day comes when Joey must earn his keep. At the hands of another drunken contest with his brother, Arthur wagers that Joey would plow his fields with only a week to earn. If he wins, Ted pays him the 39 pounds Arthur original paid for the horse; if the does not plow the fireld, Arthur must surrender Joey to Ted, who has long promised the horse to his son Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox).
Joey and Albert meet this challenge as well, all with the promise from his father that Joey will be Albert’s to keep if they win, which they do. But the beginning of World War I follows quickly upon that victory. Arthur, breaking his promise sells Joey to the army, where his new owner will be a compassionate but firm Captain Charles Stewart (Grayson DeJesus). Suddenly, Joey finds himself in France, learning how to be a cavalry horse. He is “taught” by Topthorn (Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruiti, Aaron Haskell), the great black steed of another officer.
Months pass and Albert receives word that Captain Stewart has been killed in combat. Distraught and still under-aged, Albert runs away joins the army. Thus begins Joey’s struggle to survive the war and Albert’s quest to somehow find him.
War Horse was a highly enjoyable show with truly fine performances. Actors and puppeteers worked side by side, successfully creating the illusion of mankind and animals sharing the stage. The scope and setting of the piece did create a slight handicap given the limitation of the stage, which the production sought to bridge with animated projects, being large successful.
The element of the production that did take me out more than once was the soundtrack. Often, it felt as though the action and duration of the sequences were dictated, almost driven by the pre-recorded music. As a result, there were several occasions when the show felt long. I have seen shows in this same space that better convey the vastness of the world. But perhaps I just miss the pit orchestra.
Then again, perhaps that is indeed in keeping with the style of the piece. The horses are intricate man-sized puppets. And while these puppets exhibit behaviors and movements that are incredibly life-like, it feels as though there is an intentional effort to leave room for the suggestion of the animal, rather that a precise, dead-on inmitation. The perfornmances and images create the strong suggestion, but hold just shy of doing all the work for the audience. It is a very smart way to demand that your audience spend their disbelief and consciously participate in the engagement to the illusion.
While the most obvious accomplishment of the production is the teams of puppeteers that bring Joey and Topthorn to life, a less obvious achievement would be the overall choreography of the piece. Toby Sedgwick and Adrienne Kapstein, director and associate director of movement and Horse choreography respectively, team up with co-directors Marianna Elliott and Tom Morris to craft an elegant ballet. Fomr the controlled chaos of the battle scene to the down home "granduer" of a folky plow pulling content, this show delivers emotional punches that are both stark and ardent.
The National Theatre of Great Britain production of War Horse is currently running through July 29, 2012 at:
in downtown los Angeles
135 North Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012