The National Theatre of Great Britain has brought an infantry of more than three dozen performers to the Ahmanson Theatre, in the form of its touring, epic staging of War Horse, Tony Award winner for Best Play, employing the same source material as Steven Spielberg's feature film of the same title. That this beautifully staged circus of unapologetic shlock should win such a prize is an indicator of either how our commercial theater has sunk, or how fundamentally flawed or compromised the Tony Awards have become.
In association with Handspring Puppet Company, Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo's novel about a boy from Devon, England, coming of age during World War I through a relationship with his horse. The boy, too young to serve in the English Army during the war, eventually enlists nonetheless and follows his horse to the battlefields of France, where the equine lives at the edge of annihilation in No Man's Land after having been sold to the Army by the boy's alcoholic father.
The novel has been oft described as a children's story — a categorization denied by Morpurgo, who insists that it speaks to people of all ages. He would be wiser to leave the description alone as a compliment, for Stafford's adaptation (co-directed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner) suffers from attempts to impose grave themes about the state of the world upon a fairly simple story of unrequited love between a boy and his horse — a love compensating for a series of betrayals of the boy by his dad.
The story's essence is as simple-hearted as National Velvet or Lassie, and would be better left alone on those terms. This is because, with the exception of a few horses, tidily portrayed as looming puppets (designed by Adrian Kohler with Basil Hones for Handspring Puppet Company) and each manipulated by three performers lodged inside sacks of cloth and wire, there's nary a character with dimension on the stage. This would be just fine in any number of sagas, ranging from a satire to a children's story. But War Horse aims to be so much more.
The boy, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), is single-mindedly obsessed with his horse. His father (Todd Cerveris) is single-mindedly obsessed with drink and money. The subsequent friction between son and father, using the horse as a pawn, contains the grand sweep of a fable, an operatic story on the essences of love and loyalty that floats across the English Channel into the fog of war.
Unfortunately, the stereotyped characters and situations, and the production's thick slatherings of sentimentality, reduce both the domestic drama and the war story to so much piffle. When its thin characters return home to Devon, where the story began, the production feels like a large, empty shell, not unlike the horses.
Many of these problems are masked by the ostentatiously glorious production, in which the ensemble bursts into stirring chorales, and a Song Man (John Milosich) croons provincial hymns about us all being "only remembered for what we have done." (It's a very pretty and general sentiment that bears scant relation to the actual story being told, with its depiction of soldiers walking bravely into machine gunfire only to enter the ranks of the forgotten.)
Rae Smith's sets include a kind of cloth swath that sweeps high across the width of the stage, and on which are projected Smith's own lovely sketches depicting the settings in Devon, and points beyond.
But Adrian Sutton's music gets to the essence of why the show feels so hollow. It's a soundtrack, really, designed to stir emotions associated with fragments of history, and the tugs and pulls among the denizens of Devon. The inventive puppetry broadcasts that this is a work of theater, in which we transfer human empathy to the puppet's cloth and ribs, because of the way the puppeteers swish a tail, or flick an ear. The music, however, broadcasts that we're really watching theater that's aching to be a movie. At least in his film, Spielberg shatters those contradictions and illusions. In the movie, at least, a horse is a horse.
WAR HORSE | Adapted by Nick Stafford and Handspring Puppet Company from the novel by Michael Morpurgo | Produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through July 29 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org