Monday Smiles – 6/18/2012

Way back at the beginning of the year (in some ways that seems long ago) when Muri and I went to see Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse, we were surprised to hear that it was based on a play.   In case you haven’t seen it, Warhorse is a wartime epic set in rural England and in the World War I battlefields of Europe.  Joey is a horse raised from a colt by teenager, Albert, just before the war.  When war comes, Albert’s drunkard father sells Joey to a horse-loving British Army cavalry officer for $100 pounds.  The officer, Captain Nichols, promises a devastated Albert that he will take care of Joey and return him when the war is over in a few months.  The war drags on and when Albert learns of the death of Captain Nichols, he lies about his age to join the Army and search for Joey.   His search is set against the harsh realities of young men whose dreams of glory die in muddy trenches and of cavalry charges into machine gun fire and barbed wire bringing down horses by the hundreds.   It seemed impossible that the wrenching battle scenes, particularly those involving the horses, could be captured on the stage.

Yesterday, Muri and I saw the National Theater of Great Britain’s presentation of Warhorse at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.   According to the program, the play is adapted from a children’s book by Micheal Morpugo which told the story from Joey’s point of view.   When the National Theater decided to develop a screenplay, they changed the point of view to that of people who are inspired by Joey during his grueling journey.  So, you’re probably wondering how the National Theater captured cavalry battles on stage.  The answer is puppets, along with some very dramatic lighting and use of a screen above the stage which provides moving, hand drawn sketches of the scenery.  Yes, puppets.  Joey and the other horses in the play are life-sized puppets developed by Handspring Puppets and operated by three to five actors in and around the puppet.   While the movements of the puppets … particularly the small details like the toss of the head or the twitch of the ears … are astonishingly realistic, the puppets themselves aren’t made to look completely realistic and the actors operating them aren’t completely hidden.  Still, the puppetry is so seamlessly integrated with the action, that after a while, all you see is horses.  When a puppet-horse drops to its knees and dies from over-exertion, the audience gasps.   And the first several times Joey galloped across the stage, he received spontaneous applause.  You can see some examples of the puppetry here in this montage of scenes from the play:

You might have noticed that I’m being careful not to give the plot away.  That’s because the play is very close to the film and I found myself wishing I hadn’t seen the film first.  Yes, the play is about the the horrors of war but it is also about people … and animals … rising above those horrors to inspire us.  If you get a chance to see the it, do it.  It is remarkable theater.   In sixty-eight years, I’ve seen a lot of theater.   You’d think it would all be, as they say, old hat by now.  But it’s not.  It’s such a treat to be amazed.  It’s Monday … I’m smiling.

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2 Comments on “Monday Smiles – 6/18/2012”

  1. I love your Monday Smile’s posts, Bud. They always leave ME smiling too. I doubt I’ll have the chance to see the PLAY version, but I will definitely check out the movie version.

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