Puppets are no longer just for children and this National Theatre of Great Britain production at the Ahmanson of “War Horse” brings Michael Morpurgo’s poignant tale to life. If you’ve already seen the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name, this has a slightly different take on the story.

Having real horses on stage would be wonderful except that they aren’t the cleanest animals because they aren’t easily house-trained and litter boxes don’t work for them (to my knowledge). Instead live horses or the cheap, dodgy looking two-men in a horse suit, horses are expressed with puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company.

If you saw “The Lion King” as a staged musical production, you basically have the  idea of what is going to happen. Yet these puppets are less colorful, and that’s in keeping with the more somber nature of this tale.

The stage is mostly bare and black with a white roughly torn strip about midway across the top.  This is used as a screen and photos and sketches as well as abstract expressions of war are projected on it.

The story begins in Devon, England with a bay colt Joey (at the performance I saw, the puppeteers were Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica). The puppeteers are dressed in the style of the times–trousers, shirts, vests and hats and coordinated to blend in with the horse puppet they animate (e.g. browns for those working with Joey and black for those working Topthorn). This puppet is not as detailed as the one playing the older Joey. The legs aren’t articulated, but the ears are wonderfully expressive.

Joey becomes the center of a bidding war between brothers Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris) and war vet Arthur Narracott (Brian Keane). Ted stayed home from the war, but Arthur is the more successful one while Ted is susceptible to drinking. Supposedly, the men are bidding for their sons. Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox), doesn’t seem to want the horse as much as his father Arthur or his cousin Albert (Andrew Veenstra). Lieutenant James Nicholls (Jason Loughlin) was an early bidder but left off as the two brothers went higher than was wise–particularly since the horse is more of a hunter or riding horse than a farmer’s draft horse.

Although Ted wins the bid, the care of the horse goes to Albert as Ted faces his wife Rose (Angela Reed) who is more worried about the mortgage. The play makes this especially awkward because Ted owes the money to his brother Arthur. Arthur gets Ted drunk and gets him to bet that the horse, now named Joey (Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui), will be able to pull a plow in a week. Not an easy training job but Ted leaves it to Albert.

Albert is through patience and love able to teach his loyal Joey. For anyone who has taught an animal a trick that didn’t come easy, the kind of devotion this shows is heartbreaking because of what happens next.

The church bells announce the declaration of war and although Ned has just promised Albert that Joey is his, Ned hurries up to the town to sell Joey for a tidy sum. Albert, who is only 16, can’t follow Joey. Nicholls swears to Albert that he will take good care of the horse.

Yet World War I brought a change of tactics. The charge of horses became foolish carnage as the machine gun mows down the horses and men. The British soldier in France find the Germans have the upper hand and a better understanding of modern warfare. This is tastefully portrayed. Joey with another fine riding horse Topthorn (Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti and Aaron Haskell) will go through many trials and both of them won’t survive, but we see that people on both sides showed kindness.

I haven’t read the original story, but the play came out before the movie. Written by Nick Stafford, the play made its Off-West End debut in 2007 and went to the West End in 2009. It went to Broadway in 2011 where it won a Tony for Best Play,  Best Direction (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), Best Scenic Design (Rae Smith), Best Lighting (Paule Constable) and Best Sound (Christopher Shutt). There was a special Tony awarded to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring for the puppetry.

The conflict between the brothers isn’t as convincing as movie set up where Ted is bidding against the wealthy landowner. Having the father break his promise so soon as in the play is also problematic. There is little to redeem Ned as a father and husband in the play. In the movie, Spielberg gives a deeper psychological reason behind Ted’s drinking and there’s desperation that forces him to sell Joey for the war effort.

Still, it’s a credit to the Handspring Puppet Company and Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for their puppet design, fabrication and direction. There’s also a separate director of movement and horse choreography. The men in charge of the horse puppets don’t attempt to make the puppet look like a real horse–they even refrain from using something that would simulate the silky mane and tail or a horse. Instead, they go for the feeling and suggest a horse. The attention to detail helps: the movement of the ears and tail were well nuanced cues to the emotional state of the horses (Only the adult Joey and Topthorn are fully realized while other horses are represented by less detailed and articulated puppets).

Having two men on stage–one who plays an instrument (Nathan Koci) and one who sings (John Milosich) gives this play both atmosphere and the sweep of an epic poem.

What is particularly timely about “War Horse” is that at the beginning of the play, the men are so sure that they will go to Europe and be back in a few months after easily defeating the Germans. Wasn’t that the same attitude some people had about Iraq and Afghanistan not so long ago?  It might discomfort audience members to know that horses were used in the current Afghanistan war, taking U.S. Special Forces to areas where tanks and other automotive transport were not practical.

“War Horse” continues at the Ahmanson until 29 July 2012. For more information, visit the Center Theatre Group website.

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