The standard way to wish an actor good luck in the theater is: "Break a leg." Thus the obvious lead for this story, as will soon become apparent, should be: Sometimes - unintentionally - the expression gets taken literally. I am instead opting for another opening: Performing "War Horse" isn't for sissies. So I've been saying for months, and so, every so often, am I reminded by something that happens on- or off-stage to a member of the show's cast or crew. The most recent example of the team's toughness involves actor Elliot Villar, whose roles are Allan and Soldat Klausen. I can't improve upon Villar's telling of what happened to him onstage during the Sunday, September 18, performance. So here it is, in his words.
"I was going on that day in the role of Friedrich for Peter Hermann, who unfortunately had to take a personal day to attend the funeral of a friend. He and I are both Yale alums, and at the performance were 40-plus Yale alumni, who held a get-together afterward. I couldn't go to the party: at that point I was at the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital.
"Let me explain. At the top of Act Two, there is a scene in which Friedrich makes his first entrance. I'd done this part before, when Peter was on vacation. Anyway, the Oberst comes in, and orders that the horses be harnessed. Friedrich says it's impossible, but his superior orders him to do it anyway.
"Friedrich has to harness Topthorn. Topthorn refuses three times to take the harness. During the second refusal, Friedrich puts the harness over the animal's head; the horse body-checks him and he falls. At that performance, during the fall, I felt that something with me had gone very wrong. I couldn't figure it out right away. I knew that I had twisted my right ankle. My mind was in two places at once: in the scene, where I knew I had to stand up and grab the harness for the third time, and in my mind, where I was wondering if I was going to be able to stand up.
"I put a little weight on my foot. I thought: I'm okay, it's just a sprain. I managed to get through the scene, which lasted another two-and-a-half minutes. I was starting to feel like I'd had a pretty bad sprain. When I got offstage, I told stage management. They asked whether they should stop the show. I thought: No, I can get through this.
"So we continued with the show. During the next scene, at the French farm, I was limping and was trying not to aggravate things. By the next scene, I was staying off my right foot almost completely. For the audience, I must have just looked like a soldier who had injured himself.
"Before we got to my final scene, I told stage management backstage that something was really wrong, and that we would have to go to the hospital when the show was over.
"By the way, backstage everybody was helpful. As soon as I would come off a scene, people would bring me ice, and my props were brought to me, rather than me fetching them myself as I normally do.
"After the performance, the company manager, Matthew Markoff, acted as a kind of human crutch, to get me to the street, where we hailed a cab.
"We went to the closest emergency room, at Roosevelt Hospital. It took about an hour for me to be seen by a doctor, and another two hours before I was treated and left.
"The doctor examined me and at first said she thought I had a really bad sprain but not a break. She got a little adamant about my taking a painkiller, but the pain wasn't bad so I kept saying no.
"At this point, I hadn't explained yet that I'd been injured in the line of actorly duty. I still had stage mud on my hand, and red eyeliner and other make-up under my eyes. She must have thought: This guy had quite a weekend partying!
"They took an x-ray. The doctor said she was surprised, that I had a fracture of the right fibula - the smaller of the two leg bones - near the ankle.
"I was still operating under so much natural post-performance adrenaline that it wasn't until my wife arrived at the hospital, when they were prepping me for a plaster cast, that I started to feel the pain in a big way. This was around four hours after the fall itself.
"The very next day, I saw Dr. Phillip Bauman, one of the orthopedic specialists Lincoln Center [Theater] works with. He said it would be four to eight weeks before I could go back to the show.
"It turns out that Dr. Bauman and his daughter had seen 'War Horse.' He asked me to remind him what my footwear was in the play. I said I was wearing knee-high boots. He asked: 'Were they loose?' I said: 'No, they were laced all the way up. They're a very snug fit.' He said: 'That explains to some extent why you made it through the performance.' The boot itself was acting both as a splint and to some extent as a tourniquet - keeping things really tight and keeping pressure on my ankle. The boots helped keep my ankle from turning again. I'll try to remember that the next time my feet feel sore from wearing tight boots onstage.
"The most frustrating part of the healing process is being off my feet. I have crutches. I wore a plaster cast until October 4, when I was put in a non-weight-bearing boot. The alignment of my bones is looking great, but there's still healing that needs to be done. In another two weeks, the doctor believes I will move on to a weight-bearing boot for two weeks. I won't need crutches for that. Then there will be two weeks of physical therapy. All in all, I'll be out of the show for eight weeks. Ian Lassiter has been doing my regular part while I'm away.
"As you can imagine, because I need to keep my leg elevated, I've been catching up on my reading: I just finished Michael Caine's autobiography, 'What's It All About?' I've also been catching up on 'Breaking Bad.' My Netflix queue has become a little heavier on action and sci-fi now that I can control the queue more than my wife does.
"The 'War Horse' cast has been great about checking in since I've been out. T. Ryder Smith stopped by my place last week, bringing a get-well card signed by the cast, as well as magazines. Ian Lassiter is planning to visit soon with Bhavesh Patel. Sanjit de Silva, my dressing-room roommate, gave me a ride from home - in Astoria, Queens -- into the theater one day so I could pick up a few things. I'm so grateful to everyone for how they have helped out.
"These days, every night around 8 o'clock, there's a strange feeling in the back of my mind. I know that a 'War Horse' performance is about to start, and I'm not there. There are blessings, however, to being stuck at home. My wife is here, and we've had extra amounts of time together. I grew up in New York, and I have family nearby, and it's nice to be able to have Friday-night dinner together. They come to us. Having dinner at 7 or 8 o'clock on a Friday is their normal schedule. Imagine that!"
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.