THEATER REVIEW: Don’t miss “War Horse” at Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.

If you can only see one play this year, make it “War Horse.”

There, I’ve said it, and the rest of this review is filler that I hope will entice, intrigue or prod you into buying a ticket for the show at the Ahmanson Theatre before it closes on July 29.

Most Americans know of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of this story. Most probably don’t know that the source material is a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, nor that Nick Stafford and Handspring Puppet Company’s stage adaptation premiered in 2007 in London and won five Tony Awards in its 2011 Broadway run. Los Angeles is the first stop on its national tour.

On one level, it’s a simple story about an English boy and his horse, set in the World War I era. But it also makes points about the incredible waste of war and inhumanity.

Devon farmer Ted Narracott (Todd Cerveris), given to drink and silly bets with his more successful brother Arthur (Brian Keane), gets into a testosterone-fueled bidding war for a horse at auction. His 15-year-old son Albert (Andrew Veenstra) tries to stop him, but hormones trump sense, and Ted wins the bid.

Wife Rose (Angela Reed), fit to be tied, moans about the mortgage and asks what they are to do with this animal that isn’t even a farm horse (he’s half thoroughbred, half draft horse).

“You’ll think of something,” says Ted. “But I got the better of Arthur.”

Albert is tasked to train the horse (whom he names Joey). Joey is skittish at first, Albert uncertain; but they learn together and soon become fast friends.

History intervenes, war is declared, and Arthur sends his son Billy (Michael Wyatt Cox) to fight. The army also takes Joey, sending him to the French front. Albert is crushed; worse, he is too young to enlist and follow his horse.

Millions of words have been written about the eight million lives lost in the “war to end all wars.” But more than a million horses were also lost in the conflict, and this war story is told from the horses’ point of view.

And what horses! South African puppeteers Adrian Kohler and Brian Jones of Handspring Puppet Company have built fantastic life-size horse puppets (made of cane, plywood, metal and nylon mesh) that require two or three people to operate. You’ll swear you can see the horses thinking, feel their hesitation, experience their fear. Care has been taken to train each team member to communicate through breathing, since they are all miked.

There are other animal puppets as well – birds on sticks at the beginning, crows and my favorite, a hoot of a busybody goose sticking his nose into everything.

The show’s other technical aspects are superb as well, especially the lighting and the judicious use of fog.

“War Horse,” brilliantly directed by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, also boasts a large and fine 30-plus member cast, including vocalist John Milosich and instrumentalist Nathan Koci performing songs of the era.

You’ve seen puppet shows and horse stories and war stories. But you’ve never seen anything like “War Horse.” Don’t miss it.

The details

“War Horse” plays through July 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles.

Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm.

For tickets, call (213) 628-2772 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.