The whole family was in New York City last week as a way of celebrating Miriam's graduation from college and, well, just because we like going to places like New York City. We visited the Natural History Museum (and got hours of laughter from imagining how a Tyrannosaurus Rex could possibly use those idiotically short arms of his) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, walked around Chinatown and Little Italy, strolled through Central Park praising Frederick Law Olmstead (the architectural genius behind it all) and generally had ourselves a terrific time.
The highlight for me was seeing the play "War Horse." On one level, the show, which tells the story of a farm horse that is conscripted by the British crown to fight in World War I, is extraordinarily simple: most of the time, the stage is nearly bare--there is hardly any set. The centerpiece is a remarkable machine (you can't really call it a puppet) that evokes the horse of the title. (If you don't know what I'm referring to, take a moment to look at this.) Three actors operate the machine so that the horse gives a breathtaking performance. It is spellbinding--there is no other word.
We first saw the machine/puppet while touring Lincoln Center. The guide said something about how he, as an audience member, had stopped paying attention to the puppeteers and came to believe it was a real horse. I didn't have that experience: I was always aware that it was not a real horse, and that was what made it so remarkable. I think it was Brecht who pointed out that playgoers don't forget that they're watching actors in a play. We don't forget that we're watching movies or television. Part of what captivates us is our awareness that we are experiencing an illusion. If it were real, or seemed completely so, it would be unremarkable: reality is all around us, and we don't need reminding of it.
"War Horse" is theater at its best because it is a kind of conspiracy between the actors and the audience. We in the audience have to work a bit: as we watch, we have to supply what's missing--although this isn't a difficult task because we're given very good cues. The actors don't create the illusion for us, they invite us to create the illusion for ourselves.
When it works--and it does, stunningly so, in "War Horse"--the experience is like nothing else. It is truly life-changing, and that, as Elizabeth gleefully pointed out, is why we do what we do when we create performances.
If you have the chance to see "War Horse" in New York, seize the opportunity. You will be transformed, and your imagination will be sparked in ways you might not have thought possible.
(PS: It's worth pointing out that only yards away from the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where they're creating theatrical magic with "War Horse" by making the audience do much of the work, stands the Metropolitan Opera. In that house, massive sets and stunning costumes cloak the music in a fabric of monumental naturalism. It is an altogether different way of firing the imagination, but it works just as wonderfully. Perhaps this is more workable in opera because the medium itself is so removed from reality: as fun as it is to sing stories, it isn't very much like everyday life. Surrounding the singing with something that looks like it could be a city street or a ballroom underscores the unreality, just as having a wooden puppet portray the emotions and reactions of a horse takes us farther from ordinary life to a deeper truth.)