Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Theater review: War Horse at Winspear Opera House exemplifies the art of acting
War Horse is a masterpiece of modern theater.
DALLAS Theater is the greatest art form created by mankind. It is live, there before your very eyes. You observe from your seat with all your senses, not blocked by TV screens, video screens, or the silver screen. You are there with other human beings experiencing an avalanche of emotions and visual delights in design, direction and acting. Theater is in the moment, carrying an audience into the story and emotion exposed on those stage boards. Through acting, direction and design, artists engulf an audience in an attempt to create art and feeling from their stage craft. Some succeed, some fail.
As an actor myself, nothing on this earth matches the intensity you feel on stage when creating a character, essentially bringing that character all of its subtext and substance. And to have the audience just a few feet away from you in the dark and, as the evening progresses, to hear the results of your hard work, either by laughter, tears, or applause ... that is the art form we treasure so much.
The art of theater can be achieved by both Equity and non-Equity theater companies. This type of art has no guidelines or rules when it comes to budget or actors' compensation. I have observed (and done) equity/non equity productions that had tons of bells and whistles and still flopped. On the other side of the coin, I've seen (and done) productions (again equity/non equity) on a shoestring budget that had audiences loving every second.
Theater is subjective, but in the end it creates magic in ways no other medium can achieve. When all the elements line up just right, it culminates in a magnificent, emotional evening of theater that stays with you long after curtain call. That can be said of War Horse, the Tony Award-winning play currently at the Winspear Opera House for the AT&T Performing Arts Center series.
War Horse is based on the book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, an acclaimed children's book writer. It was adapted for stage by Nick Stafford. The play made its debut in October 2007 at the Royal National Olivier Theatre in South Bank, London. It was then reworked some more before it made its West End debut in April 2009 to great critical acclaim.
War Horse crossed the oceans to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in April 2011 to make its first Broadway appearance, where again it was met with waves of praise. War Horse then won five Tony Awards including Best Play. It also took home those silver medallions for Best Direction, Best Scenic Design, Best Lighting Design, and Best Sound Design.
Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg bought the rights to transform the play into celluloid and the motion picture was released in December 2011. Just like the stage production, the film was heaped with glowing accolades by the film critics.
The film would go on to become a box office smash nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won two Golden Globe Awards and five British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards.
I saw War Horse the film and completely agreed with the acclaim it received. It is a lush, dramatic epic superlative to films of the recent CGI, special effects and rapid editing age. The movie allowed the story to breathe and develop. It was one of Spielberg's finest films on his already stellar resume.
Originally, Michael Morpurgo thought "they must be mad" when he was informed that the Royal National Theatre wanted to transform his best-selling 1982 novel into an actual stage production. According to the aforementioned results, he was proven wrong.
Playwright Stafford places the audience in Devon, a county of England, reaching from the Bristol Channel in the north to the English Channel in the south, at the beginning of World War I. We meet a youth named Albert Narracott who has a horse he loves dearly named Joey. But due to the demands of the war and the financial struggles of the family, the horse is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France.
Joey serves in the British and German armies. While battling these wars, the horse befriends another fellow Army horse named Topthorn. Joey goes on extraordinary journey during this bloody, horrific war. He battles enemy fire, near death, disease and even serves on both sides before finding himself alone in a no man's land. Back home, young Albert cannot forget Joey, and though he is not of age to enlist in the Army, he lies about his age and embarks on a dangerous mission to find his beloved horse Joey and bring him back home to Devon.
The elements of lighting, sound, music, sets, costumes, projections, and the puppetry can all be summed up in one line: They create a visual masterpiece that I have NEVER seen done on a stage for a play in my entire life. Throughout the evening there were loud waves of applause, gasps, whispers, and lots of tears that ebbed from Thursday night’s audience.
Paule Constable’s original lighting design, with additional design and adaptation by Karen Spahn, is gloriously layered in emotion and visual subtext. While the color palette is in muted, natural colors, the way in which they are focused, layered and move is unbelievable. Normally the actual lighting instruments are invisible in shows, but here they are evident. You see them float up and down in long lines, looking like sleek electronic Christmas trees, or come right below the hanging scrim. They also have spotlight operators placed right on stage on either corner in tiny boxes where you see them shift and move those massive cannons of light. The way in which the lighting gels from one scene to the next, how it shifts from brightness to darkness, how it is focused to seal in the vehemence on stage is magical. During some of the most dramatic and intense scenes, the lighting pierces straight into the emotion to give it such power and scope. Usually it is only musicals where lighting like this appears, so to see it done for a play is rare. But here it is done superbly.
Sets created by Rae Smith and projections by 50 Productions lend the next tier of design brilliance to this piece. Smith has singular pieces of a door, a window, a side wall, and other one unit pieces that appear on stage. Smith has also designed simple wooden sticks and pipes that, when held by humans on stage, masterfully transform into horse fences and a ship crashing against the violent storms.
Above the cast there is a massive scrim designed to look like a stiff, ripped piece of paper. The symbolism of this scrim is revealed in Act Two, and when you see the connection you do gasp in bewilderment. 50 Productions projects similarly powerful images throughout the evening. They show the audience the drawings of Lieutenant James Nicholls, the tiny village and hillsides of Devon, various locations where the war occurs, and so on. But there are also images that flash across the scrim and send a cold chill down your back and a lump in your throat. I won't reveal it here.
Smith’s costumes are detailed in period and creation. The simplistic, earth-tone colors and fabrics for the villagers, the uniforms of the Germans, French, and British are all designed to perfection in terms of realism.
Christopher Shutts’ sound design is superimposed with the music by Adrian Sutton and John Tams that is yet another tier of design beauty. Throughout the play are soft hymns and ballads sung on stage that not only supply subtext, but also are used as transitions. The sound elements encompass chirping birds, ear deafening explosions, waves of crashing oceans, and other sounds that are used here with superior results.
It is the fusion of all these design elements that create a world on stage that I have never seen in a play. My jaw must have hit the Winspear Opera House floor with a loud thud over a dozen times because I could not believe what I was seeing before by eyes. I gasped so many times because of the sheer majestic artistry these designers created for this tale of a horse and the boy who so dearly loved him. No critic should reveal the splendor of what has been created, so I won’t. But you must see this for yourself.
Then there is the puppet design, fabrication, and direction created by Adrian Kohler with Hasil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company. Along with these puppet designers is Toby Sedgwick’s direction of movement and horse choreography.
We first see Joey, the main horse in our story, as a tiny foal, which then transforms into a massive, muscular, majestic horse. His coat color is soft tan. The other major horse is Topthorn, a sleek, huge and powerful horse whose coat is the color of coal.
I was mesmerized by how the design, movement, and sounds these puppets make actually transform them into seemingly real horses. You know they are puppets as you clearly see the puppeteers, but thanks to the magic of theater and the design/movement /choreography they achieve, you forget this. You truly believe they are real horses. I gasped (as did many in the audience) loudly when Joey transforms from foal to adult horse. It is a vision that left me speechless. Several audience members around me even uttered, “Oh my god!” The physical design of Joey is made of metal, leather, and what looked like iron mesh. Every part of the horse moves — the head, legs, ears, even the tail. The design for Topthorn is also flawless. His skin and body too are encased of metal, leather, and iron mesh, but he has this almost regal look about him. He too has the ability to move like Joey.
When Joey and Topthorn first meet, it is marvelous to observe how these two creatures battle it out to show who the boss in this army is. But then to see how they become friends and what happens later ... well grab some tissues because you’re going to need them.
There is even comic relief achieved big time with the white goose puppet. I won’t reveal it, but trust me, what that hysterical goose does resulted in the audience applauding loudly several times. Other puppets include tiny birds and ominous vultures. The puppet masters also create other horses, including the poor, sick ones that are on their last dying legs. These horses are used in war to pull either wagons full of injured or dead soldiers, or to pull heavy, iron cannons in the middle of the battles. These frail horses are caked in mud with torn, shredded skins and look so decrepit you so deeply feel honest sympathy for them.
There are several key scenes that involve Joey that grab hold of your heart and put you at the edge of your seat. Some of those scenes include his first time on the battlefield jumping over barbed wire, the scene in which he has to pull a plow to win a bet, and another instance when he has to pull a gigantic cannon. Then there is the scene when the poor horse has to escape from a humungous army tank (it takes up literally half of the Winspear stage) and in that process gets tangled into yards of silver barb wire. Hearing his wails of agony as the spikes pierce into his skin is so jarring, you want to rush on stage to help the poor creature.
The puppetry created here is something you will never, ever forget. No DVD of the actual stage production can achieve the same evocation as when you see it live. You just cannot let this opportunity fly by. You will be completely overwhelmed by what you see in the creation, design, and movement of these horses and other puppets.
These horses become real thanks to the magnificent artistry of the puppeteers. At Thursday’s performance, Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica became the foal Joey. For the adult Joey it was Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui. Bringing Topthorn to life were Jon Hoche, Danny Beiruti, and Aaron Haskell. Handling the scene-stealing goose is Jon Hoche. The other puppeteers included Brian Robert Burns, Gregory Manley, Grayson DeJesus, and Jason Loughlin. A few months ago on PBS, I saw a fascinating documentary on the making of War Horse and they showed the months of hard work that these puppeteers have to go through to make their characters come alive. They do not just “pull levers." They use their acting craft, voices, and emotion within themselves and magically transfer all that into their puppets. Without all these great and talented performers, the puppets could not achieve the legitimacy and scope created on that stage.
Thus a standing ovation to these puppeteers!
I was surprised at how large of a cast this tour has. The humans are as important as the puppets in this piece. The cast as a whole is extraordinary. My only negative critique of the cast is the difficulty in understanding the dialogue due to the heavy accents/dialects. There are times when it is very hard to make out what they are saying due to their voices cloaked in thick German, French, and British dialects. But that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise flawless cast.
Several standout performances are peppered within this sublime talented company: Nathan Koci and John Milosich provide the vocals and instrumentals that carry the audience with song. Milosich has a lilting tenor voice that crests nicely with the music. Other terrific performances include Jason Loughlin as Lt. James Nicholls, Grayson DeJesus as Captain Charles Stewart, Andrew May as Captain Friedrich Muller, Michael Stewart Allen as Private Klausen, Jason Loughlin as Paddy, and Chad Jennings as Manfred.
Special kudos must go to director Bijan Sheibani for casting the pivotal role of Emilie with an African American actress. Lavita Shaurice is a beautiful girl with strong facial features and big, caramel-hued eyes that melt your heart. Shaurice doesn’t fall into the cookie cutter “been there, done that” style of acting in portraying a young girl. She gives her great innocence, fear and shyness that radiate from her performance. The fate of her character is gut wrenching to watch, and Shaurice’s performance does achieve all that.
Brian Keane as Arthur Narracott and Michael Wyatt Cox as his son Billy portray a father and son who have a rivalry with their cousins. Keane displays rich subtext as a father who literally throws his son to the wolves of war by signing him up automatically, when the boy clearly does not want to go. Their goodbye is a simple handshake. Cox shows with honest and heartbreaking emotions his fear of being in the war. He doesn’t segue into some spineless chicken, but instead shows a teen clearly out of his league fighting a man’s war. Keane makes a beautiful transition, starting off as a bombastic, holier than thou citizen of Devon who doesn’t show his son any love, but then later, when he hears no word from his son out on the battlefields, we see his characterization change to heartbroken father.
Albert has a long, ugly family feud with his cousin Ted Narracott. Ted did not go to war when he and Albert were much younger. He stayed to take care of the lands and farm while Albert shipped off. Albert finds this both disgraceful and an evident lack of manhood and character on Ted’s part. Albert is wealthy while Ted and his family struggle to pay the mortgage on their land and farm. At a horse auction, these two men, like horses Joey and Topthorn, strut around like preening peacocks puffing their chests as they try to out bid each other for the tiny foal. In the end Ted wins, using all the mortgage money.
Ted is wonderfully portrayed by Todd Cerveris. Ted is an alcoholic and a gambler, which has led his family to a path of constant struggle. Cerveris engulfs himself in the character of Ted. How he treats Joey in one scene is extremely difficult to watch. Cerveris shines in this production.
As Ted's wife Rose, Angela Reed is the heart of this fractured family. Her scenes with her son Albert are some of the most touching moments of the entire evening. The letter scene and the final scene will have you asking your neighbor if they have extra tissues. Reed is a beautiful, tall actress who commands the stage with magnetic stage presence. She is just exceptional in this production.
The star of show along with Joey is Andrew Veenstra as Albert Narracott. This handsome actor delivers a superior and transcending performance as the young boy who loves his horse as his own best friend. You need an actor with blinding stage presence and infinite acting craft to match the majestic beauty and puppetry of Joey. Veenstra achieves that scene for scene with Joey. To make the audience truly believe that this physical amalgamation of metal, leather, and iron mesh is instead a flesh and blood horse. You need an actor leading the audience into that belief, and Veenstra does it with his exquisite acting.
Veenstra's chemistry with Joey is the heart and soul of War Horse. You honestly believe this love of man and beast. The scenes in which both human and animal scope each other out is so dazzling to watch unfold. Veenstra’s chemistry with his parents is equally as powerful. The betrayal of his father selling off Joey to the British to go to war is a heartbreaking scene to observe. There are several scenes involving Reed, Cerveris, and Veenstra that is a master class in acting. Folks, that’s how it’s done in achieving realism and organic honesty with the craft and tools of acting.
Veenstra takes the audience on an emotional epic journey to find his beloved horse, even if it means having to go through the bloody, dangerous, and abominable trenches of the war. But then there is the scene towards the end of the play that had tears constantly falling off my face and turning my playbill into a wet, soggy mess. I could hear grown men and women all around me softly crying, sniffling, and a sea of white tissues begin to pierce the darkness of the theater. I won’t state one thing about that scene, but believe me when I say it will reach deep into your soul and heart, all because of Ventra’s superlative acting and the magic of the puppeteers who bring Joey to life.
If you are an avid reader or subscriber to THE COLUMN, you know I’m not much of a lover of plays. As an actor, my resume is 98% musicals. As a critic, I review musicals 99% of the time. As a theatergoer, again, 99% is musicals. Why? I will lay my cards on the table here — I have always had a seriously hard time staying focused when it comes to plays. I have major ADD when it comes to plays, but not musicals. There is always so much exposition to get out before getting to the arc of the piece. Lots of talking. So a play has to grab hold of me immediately with the acting of the cast and direction. Period. There have been locally produced plays that I have reviewed and/or seen that do achieve that goal. But oh, so few and far.
War Horse is a production that deserves many more accolades than a “must see" or “you HAVE to go see." There is not enough flowery praise you can bestow on this luminous, splendorous, jaw dropping, and incredibly powerful piece of theater.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, theater is the art form that is live and right before your eyes. It creates emotion from design, direction, and acting. War Horse goes so far beyond that. Whether you work in theater or you love theater, you are required to see War Horse. And for those who have never attended the theater then this play is the perfect piece to expose yourself to the greatest human art form. War Horse is a masterpiece and has clearly raised the bar.
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