Theater Review: ’War Horse’ stumbles at the gate

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Following the lead of movie studios, which seem to be relying more on special effects than on substance, “War Horse” has been trotted out to the Ahmanson Theater to amaze with its production. However, the story itself is as thin as a page of the script. The drama is kept interesting by the imaginative creation of life-size puppet horses and the “actors” who animate them. The animals tweak their ears, raise their tails, rear up on their front legs and perform magnificently. Although you can see the three men pulling the strings, there is a remarkable sense of realism. Credit goes to Handspring Puppet Company.

The tribulations of the starring horse during World War I are harrowing and upsetting, again following the trend of the movies. Camera images projected on a swath of white cloth are used to heighten the sense of battle within the limitations of a stage. One bleeds for the horses as well as the soldiers.

There are “suspenseful” moments in the overlong first act, such as who will win the horse in an auction and will the beautiful thoroughbred be able to pull a plow. One problem is that the Devonshire accents are often difficult to understand, although this could be a blessing because the dialogue is so bland. The characters are conventional figures, such as the understanding wife, the pub-happy husband and the son who loves his horse.

The real action follows when the horse is sold to the army and goes to war. The special effects are let loose as we hear the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns and the boom of the cannon.

The main actors are Todd Cerveris as the father, Angela Reed, the mother and Andrew Veenstra, their son. Grayson DeJesus, exhorting his troops to fight for king and country, has a speech that would make King Henry V turn over in his French grave.

The play has been highly successful with long runs in London and New York. As a lone “neigh-sayer,” I felt I was being as manipulated as the horses.