At some point, almost everyone connected with "War Horse" tires of hearing the play talked about in terms of equine metaphor. Even at the most jubilant points in the production's history - after the Tony awards, for instance - you could almost see people's eyes rolling skyward when a headline writer reached for something like "'War Horse' Makes It To the Winner's Circle."
I try equally to avoid metaphors of war, yet I find myself thinking of what has been going on the past month in LCT's large rehearsal room in terms of preparation for battle. There, a dozen new cast members - the reinforcements or replacements or simply newbies - have been undergoing a kind of basic training: being put through the rigors required to take the stage, in mid-January, and after several tech rehearsals, of the Vivian Beaumont Theater for "War Horse," the rebooted edition.
Unlike "War Horse" run-throughs last winter, the rehearsal room is not filled only with new recruits. As much as their demanding performance schedule allows, current "War Horse" performers who've re-upped are rehearsing downstairs, too, renewing themselves while offering valuable information to their imminent colleagues.
But who are the newcomers? I talked with three of them - Tommy Schrider, Harlan Bengel, and Leah Hofmann - the other day during a lunch break, and Hofmann immediately summed up the actors: "The great thing about everybody is their variety of backgrounds."
Schrider, for instance, who will be part of the "War Horse" ensemble, has NYU training in acting, and before the new assignment did an Ellen McLaughlin play called "Septimus and Clarissa," based on Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." "I'm in the World War One phase of my career," Schrider joked. "Septimus, my character in that McLaughlin play, is a World War One soldier. And, not long ago, I did 'Journey's End'" - a drama about trench warfare - "at the Westport Playhouse."
Bengel, for his part, grew up in San Diego and began as a dancer. He's been in San Francisco Ballet, and has spent the past six-and-a-half years associated with "Phantom of the Opera" in New York and on tour. "I'd been looking for a new challenge," said Bengel, who will be a puppeteer primarily understudying Joey and Topthorn, "and 'War Horse' definitely fit the bill."
And what of Hofmann, who grew up in St. Louis? A dancer, she holds at least two distinctions with regard to "War Horse." She is the production's first female head puppeteer, by which I mean not that she is some kind of manager but that in the trinity of Joey/Tophorn assignments (head/heart/hind), she's in that first category. Secondly, Hofmann is the first "War Horse" puppeteer who has been a Rockette. "I was one for three years," she told me, before pointing out, "My most recent assignment was in the national tour of 'Young Frankenstein.'"
All three novices had something to say about the physical demands of "War Horse." "As a Rockette," Hofmann commented, "I was working my lower body a lot. With this show, the upper body will also get quite a workout." Bengel added, "With this production I don't need only stamina; I need to develop strength." And Schrider put in: "My last assignment, 'Septimus,' was very physically rigorous, but it required a different kind of concentration than 'War Horse' does."
The new performers all praised the people overseeing the rehearsals - associate director Drew Barr, puppetry associate Matt Acheson - for running a rehearsal room that, in game form, incorporates play and, within necessary boundaries, encourages freedom. And the performers are grateful for the welcome they've gotten from current "War Horse" cast members. "I feel like the baby sister coming in," said Hofmann, "and the women in the show have let me know how happy they are to have a new member of the sorority."
As they enter the "War Horse" fraternity or sorority of whatever you wish to call the acting crew, the new performers are already aware of the requirements for maintaining good standing in the tribe. "I'm definitely going to be taking care of myself both in and out of the theater," Schrider said - a regimen that includes helping his wife take care of their daughter, Aila, who was born ten days before Schrider's "War Horse" rehearsals began. Bengel's offstage activities include a digital dalliance or two. Most relatable: he's been tweeting in the persona of one of the "War Horse" star steeds. The handle: ahorsenamedjoey.
To borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, may Bengel's animal whinny with us for a good long time.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.