The day after Ariel Heller finished his one-year commitment to "War Horse," in early January of this year, he got on a plane. "I went to Paris and London, for two-and-a-half weeks," he told me the other evening, sitting outside Lincoln Center Theater before curtain. "I got far away from the First World War."
But Heller, whose tracks as a puppeteer in the show include Joey and Topthorn, hadn't escaped the trenches permanently. "When I got back to New York, in late January, my dog, a real grounding force in my life, died. Quite suddenly." Heller started thinking about moving to Los Angeles, to explore his prospects in the world of film and television. Before moving permanently, however, "War Horse" returned to his life.
"In February, I did the press launch in L.A., for the show's national tour," Heller said. This gig involved working with one of the horse puppets, and doing press interviews. Then he hit the road. "I went all over the country for three weeks, doing more promotion and publicity."
Heller's connection to the show continued. "I was asked to go to Australia, to do the press launch there, in April. I couldn't say no." And so that month found him in Melbourne, promoting the Australian production that will premiere at the end of this year. "I also helped work the auditions there," Heller said. "It was a great experience."
In June, Heller had finally moved to L.A. "I can't say I had escaped 'War Horse' completely," he said, "because the show played the summer there, at the Ahmanson." In late August, the bugle again sounded. "Two days before I was scheduled to attend the Telluride Film Festival -- my sister works for it - I got a call asking me if, essentially, I could replace Rico" - Enrico D. Wey - "while he was out."
That is how, after spending 2012 in but not in, away from but not quite removed from, "War Horse," Heller found himself back at the Beaumont, where he expects to be in "War Horse" until mid-October.
"In a lot of ways, it's like I never left," Heller commented. "All of my tracks came back to me with relative ease." The actor credits the production's stage manager, Rick Steiger, with helping him make the transition.
"I still know about half the people in the cast," Heller said, "and the other half are new. It's a good mix." And what about the daily regimen a "War Horse" puppeteer must follow, to ensure that he's up for the show eight times a week? "It's taken me a minute to remember what I call my backstage flow," Heller said. "My mind remembered everything, but my body didn't." He added: "Coming back to the production, I thought I was in better physical shape than when I left. But I wasn't in better 'show shape.' Being in 'show shape' is very specific, and has to do with making sure that specific muscles that you need to do the work are in good order."
And are they now?
"They're getting there," Heller replied.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.