The Broadway Show League hasn't started its season yet, but if War Horsedoes field a softball team there, yesterday's performance proves emphatically that the show's ensemble knows how to handle a curve. Company member Austin Durant was out with a back injury, so the actors had to make quick adjustments to take over the roles he plays.
This process is especially challenging during the preview period that the production is in. Because the enterprise is still working hard to iron out kinks before opening night, on April 14, there has not been time to rehearse substitutes. There was a quick run-through before curtain yesterday and then - boom! - the show went on.
Matt Doyle, one of five actors who covered Durant's assignments (the others were Elliot Villar, T. Ryder Smith, Boris McIver, and Ian Lassiter), told me a few hours after the show: "What's amazing about our covering system is how many people must become involved when one person is out of the show. Because War Horse is so deeply technical, every track" - a track is, in essence, an actor and/or character's assignment in a play - "has a great deal of responsibility. In order to cover all of the responsibilities when someone is out, they need to be divided amongst the players who have extra time in their normal tracks."
Doyle, for example, went on for Durant in Act Two as the Crater Soldier. This was a brief assignment in which he had to run on and get killed. (In this show, dying is easy -- at least compared to holding up a life-size horse for two-and-a-half hours.) "The true heroes of the night," Doyle observed, "were Ian Lassiter, Elliot Villar, and T. Ryder Smith. They had to take on new characters, new text, and some of Austin's more difficult technical responsibilities."
As for the specific substitutions, Villar told me that he took on Durant's roles of Carter/Sgt. Carter, while Lassiter took over Villar's normal duties as Allan/Sgt. Allan. McIver and Doyle took on Durant's Act Two duties, except for the role of Manfred, which went to Smith. Got that?
Villar further explained: "From a performing standpoint, it was a real trip going on as Carter. Finding myself in a scene with Mr. Allan felt like one of those dreams where you're you but you don't look like you." He added: "To be able to play our story from another perspective was illuminating and exciting but mostly I felt like a participant of a trust exercise in which there was no doubt that I was going to be caught."
Smith used a slightly different metaphor to describe the afternoon. "In general, I can say it was like being a last-minute addition to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade's already started when you arrive, you wind your way through the marching bands and baton twirlers and falling confetti. It's all quite bright and noisy and it keeps moving forward. You take your place and join in. Flowered floats and fire trucks and giant balloons stretch out behind you - ready to stack up if you hesitate for even a single moment."
Smith went on to express the sentiment I heard from everyone involved in yesterday's performance. There was a sense, he said, "that EVERYONE was going on in a new role, that the shift was happening to the cast as a whole. We were all engaged, all excited, ready to step forward and help." Smith added: I can say, after 25 years of professional theater, in everything from experimental plays to Shakespearean repertory, from raw-space warehouses to Broadway, that the War Horse cast exemplifies the true spirit of ensemble...There's not a diva in the house."
For his part, Ian Lassiter said: "The most important thing I can say about Sunday's run was that it was a testament to the teamwork we have cultivated in this War Horse process. We walked into the space, without worry or hesitation, and ALL pitched in to get the job done. The Joey horse team gave me a quick crash course on 'hoofing' amid their integral warm ups; Elliot did a damn fine job describing just where I'd need to be moment to moment; and everyone invited us to 'just stick with [them] and I'll put you where you need to be.' There was, as has been the case since day one of rehearsal in January, complete support and proactive-ness to tell this epic story."
I applaud all these bracing tributes to the ensemble and its esprit de corps, but to conclude I would like to return to where I came in today: sports metaphors and Austin Durant. (About whom Villar, speaking for everyone connected with War Horse, said: "Our top concern...is for Austin, that he be able to take the time he needs to recover, to come back to us 100 percent ASAP.") I would like to throw down a challenge to the cast, a challenge inspired by a production of As You Like It in which Durant and fellow War Horse cast member Zach Appelman were involved while M.F.A. students at Yale. In that version of Rosalind and Orlando and the Forest of Arden, all parts were taken by a cast of five. My challenge - my dream! - is to see War Horse, too, performed by a mere quintet.
The animals may have to be animatronic that day.
P.S. After posting the above item I heard from Durant. He says: "The good news is that there is nothing extremely wrong with my back. I just tweaked it in some way that sent some muscles into spasm and it's going to take a couple days for them to chill out. It's pretty painful but I'm confident that it will get better." Durant added: "When I realized that I was going to be out of commission for a few days I was really worried. But my cast mates showed up in full force and covered every aspect of my performance AND still managed to call me before the show and wish me a speedy recovery! If I could find that kind of flexibilty and support in a back brace I would be on my feet in no time. But as it stands the doctor has said I shouldn't expect to be on before next week."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.