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“War Horse”

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L-r, on horseback: Grayson DeJesus and Michael Wyatt Cox in the national tour of the National Theatre of Great Britain production of “War Horse.” Photo by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back; but this time it’s with a horse.

Set prior to and during the First World War in England and in France, “War Horse” also portrays “Victorian sensibilities pitched into a twentieth-century war,” in the words of songwriter John Tams. The play, of operatic proportions, is onstage at the Ahmanson through July 29.

Although at its simplest this is a story, almost fable-like, of a young man, Albert (Andrew Veenstra), and his abiding affection for a horse, Joey (performed by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui), the star of this Bijan Sheibani-directed touring production – by way of London and then New York – is the Handspring Puppet Company. Its life-size creations, horses foremost but also a goose and vultures, steal and elevate the show.

Since the puppeteers are clearly visible, how is it that we as viewers can cross the threshold of disbelief? “On the puppet stage,” Donald Keene wrote long ago in his introduction to the plays of Chikamatsu, “a tiger is no less real than a human being and the combat produces real excitement.” If you’ve ever seen bunraku puppets, or even – locally – the puppet wizardry of Joseph Cashore, you won’t need convincing that one can suggest the real thing on stage and sometimes make it more palatable than if the actual person or creation had been employed. But when we up the ante and present life-size abstractions of horses, each manipulated by two or three puppeteers, it’s even more astonishing when pulled off well.

We see the rough-and-tumble, but also the small gestures – the flick of an ear, the tilt of a head, a swish of the tail. Everything but the smell of the stable. When two of the horses are walked up the aisle it’s a heady mix of substance and illusion. And when Joey the foal transforms into Joey the mature horse, the effect is so brilliantly conveyed that half the audience gasps while the other half spontaneously bursts into applause.

What furthers the at-times crepuscular effects of “War Horse” is owned to the sets, costumes, and drawings of Rae Smith, the lighting by Paule Constable, and the animation and projection design of 59 Productions. Half-light, shadows, stage smoke, and, high above – like a hastily torn strip of cloth used to bandage the wounded – a screen upon which stylized footage is shown. The accumulated effect is intoxicatingly seductive. I was reminded of the canvases of Anselm Kiefer and the filmic artwork of William Kentridge.

You’ll breathe in that dark, aromatic, cinematic sensuality when the horses are bunched together on barges or in the holds of ships as they’re crossing the English Channel en route to France; you’ll feel it too when they charge lopsidedly into battle, into the screaming gunfire that does not distinguish between man or beast – they all come down in clumps of shattered bodies.

The story itself is perhaps no deeper than what we experience in opera, a sketchy scenario drawn in broad stokes, but one that allows us to fill in the blanks and the back stories. That it’s also an anti-war fable is self-evident, because there is no glory here, only terror and mud, with no John Wayne or Lee Marvin to lead the charge, somehow invulnerable to bullets. And while the horses exhibit more grace than the humans, by and large, “War Horse” does rise above the particulars of the conflict to the universal, portraying both English and German soldiers – especially Andrew May as the German office Friedrich Müller – as victims in this terrible calamity. An engaging, sobering piece of theatrical art.

War Horse is onstage through July 29 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. performances today (Thursday) and next Thursday. No 6:30 p.m. performances on Sunday,July 22 or 29. Tickets, $20 to $150. Call (213) 678-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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