By Jim McCarthy Jul 5, 2012 0 comments

Warhorse

I saw Warhorse at its premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles last Friday.  Obviously, it’s not a new show because it’s been in London and New York for a long time, and is also playing now in Toronto, but it’s still a remarkable production that is well worth talking about.

Warhorse is, whatever else it may be, a show that really should be seen.  Quibbling with the plot or character development or other valid ways that a show could be critiqued is, to me, a bit pointless because there are very few ways that you are better off spending a couple hours than seeing this show.  The puppetry, if you haven’t seen it, is startling.  If you haven’t been to this show, you’ve probably never seen an actor ride a puppet around the stage, but that’s what happens here.  The horses (of the title) are clearly being manipulated by puppeteers, but after a few minutes, they disappear.  The horses seem to breathe, twitch, and move in a way that becomes a very convincing illusion.

The rest of the staging is strong.  The backgrounds and special effects deliver effective illusions to get you from rural England to the battlefields of World War I.

The story walks a pretty fine line between over-sentimentalization of a couple of animals in the midst of a sea of human carnage and the reality that the innocence of the horses is pretty much a symbol of the innocence of so many who get caught up in a horrible war like World War I.  In fact, in many ways, the horses are more symbolic of the children whose lives get ripped apart (or who get killed) by war.  On the other hand, this is a fine line because it may be hard for the audience to get the difference between that and putting horses and their lives on a pedestal above that of the people in and around the war who are suffering in epic numbers.

I think this would have been clearer and more powerful if the lead actor had looked like the 16 year old his character is supposed to be.  It would perhaps connect the audience emotionally to the fact that he, too, is an innocent because he’s a child.  His truly childish desire to go to the war to find his lost horse wouldn’t seem idiotic (as it would for an adult) but rather child-like and tragic.

Still, I return to the basic idea that if you like theatre at all, you should go see this show.  It’s a real boundary-breaker for me, taking the typical limitations of what can be done on the stage and stretching them, mostly using low-tech methods and extreme levels of skill and dedication.

This is also an example of live entertainment leading the culture.  Yes, there was a book that proceeded the play, but the play was so remarkable that it revived interest in the book and led to a movie.  This is what I mean when I say “leading the culture” and Warhorse has certainly done that.

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