Although there are many theaters in the New York, the most famous is not in the Broadway/45th street theater district, but further uptown—Lincoln Center, which is a complex of theaters and cultural spaces rivaled only by Kennedy Center in Washington DC.
Last night we had the immense pleasure of seeing War Horse at Lincoln Center, where the New York Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera were performing as well. The complex is stunning and it made me proud to be a citizen just to be there.
Getting to our seats was unusual–the ushers demanded to see each and every persons ticket before they would be permitted to sit down. This was after our tickets had been checked at the door. It’s like the TSA has taken over ushering duties.
War Horse is performed on a large bare stage. The only scenery is a swath of white hanging above the stage upon which is projected clouds and weather, dates, locations, battle scenes, etc. Everything else needed for a particular scene is brought on, or merely suggested by an impressionistic use of a few sticks, a door frame, a coil of wire, a long pole with a flapping bird on the end. If the arts are an extension of the imagination, then you are forced to become an artist within yourself to appreciate this masterful work.
The story is one of a boy and his horse. The boy raises the horse in Devon, England. World War I breaks out, and his father sells the horse to the Army, where he eventually captured by the Germans and put to work as a draft animal, for which he is manifestly unsuited.
The horse breaks free, gets caught in barbed wire, and then is saved by a joint action of British and German soldiers, and ends up back with the Brits after a battlefield coin toss.
Meanwhile, the boy, Billy, joins the Army to find the horse he loves, but is placed in the Infantry. After 3 long years, he is injured in a gas attack, and is recuperating in the same place where the horse shows up. The plot gets awfully corny here, with pistols misfiring at the critical second and plot devices that would embarrass Lassie and Timmy. But in the end all is well, boy finds horse and we fade to black.
The plot isn’t the most important thing here, though. The magic and mystery of this show lies in the astounding horses–puppets, operated by 3 men, which become so life like I frequently forgot that they weren’t real. “Puppet” may bring to mind a toy, but these are full size creations brought to life by the South African team of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. The horses move, they breathe, they twitch, just like real ones. The illusion is staggering; you emotionally relate to the these incredible creations.
The acting is first rate, starting with Hunter Canning, as Billy. Billy’s father is played by Andy Murray, who I instantly recognized from his 10 years with Cal Shakes in Orinda. I’ve seen him in Marin and San Jose as well, and was thrilled to see him in the big time. It couldn’t happen to a more appealing actor.
War Horse is a phenomenal piece of theater. I’ll have to see the movie now, but I know it will be a totally different experience with the magic of the puppetry.
We saw 4 plays in 3 days, each a different genre. The Exonerated was just 10 actors sitting on stools doing their lines without movement or props. Glengarry Glen Ross was realistic theater, as if you were watching it happen in real life. The Book of Mormon is a musical, moving the plot forward with large set pieces of song and dance. War Horse is a very impressionistic spectacle, where you imagination must fill in for the scenery and even the central characters, with the puppetwork substituting for reality.
Still, each piece was exhilarating and enthralling. Art is brought to life by the skill of the artist, not the methodology. Whether it was Al Pacino reaching rock bottom in a busted career or a puppet of a silly goose running across the stage, the genius was in the execution and we were honored and lucky to have seen so much in three short days.