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Theater Review: 'War Horse' At The Pantages

Savannah L. Barker |
October 9, 2013 | 4:05 p.m. PDT

Arts Editor-At-Large

Joey and Topthorn in "War Horse" Photo by Brinkhoff and Mögenburg.
Joey and Topthorn in "War Horse" Photo by Brinkhoff and Mögenburg.
Intoxicating. Brilliant. Striking. All of these words accurately describe "War Horse" and yet none of them can quite capture the grandeur of this Tony-winning masterpiece. Based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo and then adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, "War Horse" is an incredibly unique production and all of its elements come together beautifully to leave its audience captivated.

When one thinks about the art of puppetry, cute hand puppets and perhaps Jim Henson's Muppets come to mind. However, "War Horse" proves this art form can reach levels of incredible sophistication and depth that go far beyond the traditional understanding of puppetry. From the moment young Joey the horse (operated by Mairi Babb, Catherine Gowl, and Nick Lamedica) graces the stage, the puppet truly emulates that of a fiery foal. Attention to detail is key, every gallop is carefully calculated showing the incredible synchronization needed between the three puppeteers. The adorable and extremely realistic foal is already enchanting its audience before the introduction of the magnificent adult Joey (operated by Jon Hoche, Brian Robert Burns, and Jessica Krueger). The larger size of this Joey allows for the puppeteers to be more hidden, making the animal seem even more alive. Once again, every detail is flawless down to the horse's breathing, and within a few minutes, one truly forgets Joey isn't a real horse.

Other puppets leave their mark on the audience with their likable personalities and in some cases, comedic relief. The impressive army horse, Topthorn (operated by Danny Yoerges, Patrick Osteen, and Dayna Tietzen) and the hilarious goose (operated by Danya Tietzen) were among the equally impressive puppets of the show that the audience quickly grew to love.

ALSO SEE: Oscars Review: "War Horse" The Movie

While an entire book could be written about the incredibly puppetry of the show, all the other elements of the show were equally amazing. Directors Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr deserve praise for their ability to bring such a talented creative team together. The set of the show (designed by Rae Smith) was a bare stage with a giant, ripped piece of paper hanging from above. Rather than attempt to physically create each setting, Rae Smith was very creative in projecting artistic sketches of the backdrop on to the ripped paper that acted as a screen. In doing so, it was always clear where each scene was happening, and the sketches had a life of their own that seemed to interact with the action taking place on stage.

The sound design (by Christopher Shutt) was equally incredible and almost film-esque in its ability to underscore the drama. A majority of the play is underscored with music by Adrian Sutton that sounds as if a full orchestra is hiding in the theater somewhere. Because the horses cannot use words to communicate, the music also does an amazing job to communicate the thoughts of the horses. While "War Horse" is far from a musical, it uses both diegetic and non-diegetic music to push the story forward. Actors Spiff Wiegand and John Milosich wander the stage singing in the background, with their songs either paralleling the action on stage or warning of what's to come.

ALSO SEE: Theater Review: "War Horse" On Broadway

Even the lighting (by Paule Constable and Karen Spahn), an element often lost in the commotion of most shows, adds to the story, and particularly the few slow motion scenes that occur. While the idea of slow motion in a theater might at first sound odd, "War Horse" uses slow motion in times of importance much like a film would. Furthermore, the incredibly physical aspect of this show allows for experimentation and flexibility with challenging movements such as slow motion action.

The show's cast was incredibly talented and well-connected, which is not surprising given the collective nature of the show. No one actor stole the show as the entire ensemble was strong and completely committed; but if anyone did steal the show, it was Joey the horse, as his presence on stage was always engrossing.

While a story following the horrors of World War I may not seem to be entirely original at first glance, "War Horse" sheds light on a story that needs to be told. There is truly no other show like "War Horse" that so perfectly combines the elements of physical theater, puppetry, music, and story. Every moment has purpose, and it's the kind of show one never forgets.

There's a reason this show won 5 Tony Awards.

Reach Arts Editor-At-Large Savannah here.

"War Horse" is playing at the Pantages Theatre (6233 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles) through October 13. Tickets start at $25. More information can be found at HollywoodPantages.com



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