Two Languages at War

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Puppetry, when it's good, is a theatrical miracle. Here's this pile of lifeless sticks and fabric that suddenly - through the puppeteer's inspiration - comes to life. The puppet begins to breathe, to take on a personality. What's so essentially theatrical - especially if you see the puppeteer who's working this alchemy - is the audience is a part of the equation. We know it's not real - and yet we give over to the magic and believe.

The puppets in the touring production of War Horse at the Ahmanson Theater are truly extraordinary works of art. They are the creation of the Handspring Puppet Company and they really have to be seen to be believed. From tiny birds that swoop over the action in lyrical curves to a goose who all but steels the show, to the majestic horse “Joey” of the title - every last one enchants.

The play which originated at the National Theater in Britain is a simple 'boy and his horse' story. The basic plot you've seen before. A young boy gets an animal that no one else can tame. He discovers the secret language and befriends the beast. The two bond then terribly they're separated. The second half becomes a journey towards an unlikely reunion.

In War Horse this familiar formula is set in the British countryside in the moments leading up to World War I. As one audience member confided at intermission, "I didn't realize how violent it was." I'm not sure whether he was talking about the play or the war - but both apply.

The challenge with War Horse is it traffics in at least two distinct theatrical styles. The first is the world of the puppets, a world that's gloriously incomplete and requires that the audience's imagination fill in the details. The show begins with an aesthetic that suggests the setting: long poles held up by actors become the fence posts of the barnyard. A single door represents a whole house. Here's War Horse at its best.

Unfortunately, there's another theatrical language spoken. Really it's the language of film. As the story progresses the production elements become less suggestive and more all-encompassing. The soundtrack is all soaring melodrama that rather than underscoring the action seems almost to dictate it. It would feel more at home in a cinema. Similarly, the projections that begin as simple and elegant line drawings morph into immersive animations that create the spectacle of war. It's easy to see why Steven Spielberg made a film based on the same material - it's got that kind of epic redemptive scope.

Now, it's not that these filmic elements aren't stunning. They are - at times too stunning. The trouble is they are warring with the simpler theatrical world. The world of the puppets is one that you want to lean into and join. The soundtrack and spectacle almost push you back in your seat.

In the end, it's the puppetry that is truly worth the three-hour journey. Forgive the show its melodramatic flaws and allow yourself the childlike joy of believing that a puppet can come to life.

War Horse plays at the Ahmanson Theater downtown through July 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: Three hours with one intermission

Banner image: (L-R) Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui and Andrew Veenstra in the National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg