Ask anyone who has seen “War Horse,” currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, what they thought of the show and you are more likely to get a gesture than an opinion. A hand to the heart. A gasp. If they can gather the words together, they might say, “I’m speechless.”
This well-loved children’s novel by Michael Montpurgo, which was adapted by Nick Stafford into a people-and-puppetry pageant by the National Theater in London, features the Handspring Puppet Company’s life-size horse puppets.
But puppets is hardly the word for them, according to Peter Hermann, who portrays Hauptmann Friedrich Muller in the Broadway version of “War Horse.”
“Even without the detailed and specific lives that the puppeteers give them, they’re just these beautiful pieces of art. Sculptures, really,” said Mr. Hermann, who, when not performing, lives with his wife, the actress Mariska Hargitay, in East Hampton. “If you look closely,” he said. “you can see the workmanship and the care and the love that went into making them. And I think it’s impossible to look into the puppets’ eyes and not see life in there.”
Although he did not have a chance to see the production in London prior to being cast, Mr. Hermann said he’s “watched the YouTube trailer for the London production about 700 times.” And he shares the audience’s emotional response to the vivid, and often disturbing, themes that run through the play.
“During the rehearsal process, there were parts of the show that got to me every time I watched them, no matter how many times I’d seen them,” he said. “And they still get to me when I see them backstage on the monitor.”
“War Horse” is, according to the Web site, an epic adventure for audiences of all ages. Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during World War I, “War Horse” begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcibly parted, the play follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all he meets — British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter — before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land.
The production is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. It has been nominated for five Tony Awards, including best play, with a special Tony for “outstanding artistry” being awarded to the Handspring Puppet Company.
Mr. Hermann’s character saves Joey by employing him and another horse as ambulance cart drays during the war.
Being of German extraction and fluent in the language helped him with with the role. “Friedrich Muller is a captain in the German cavalry. Service in the cavalry often ran in families through generations — as military service often does — so I imagine he came from a long line of cavalry officers, though that’s not made explicit in the script,” he said.
“The tragedy of the cavalry on all sides in World War I was that it was such an archaic mode of fighting in this ‘modern war,’ ” he said.
For those who won’t have a chance to see the Lincoln Center Theater production, another East Ender, Steven Spielberg, has just wrapped a movie version of “War Horse” due out during the winter holiday season. However, in the film, the puppetry is replaced by authentic equines.
Of course, it is the majesty of the onstage creations that takes “War Horse” to a level beyond the normal theatrical drama.
Prior to the start of rehearsals, Mr. Hermann said he thought, “I was going to have to do all sorts of imaginative work to bring the puppets to life for myself, but that happens on a nightly basis without any help from me.” He added that the puppeteers “are all ridiculously fit, and they joke about putting out a ‘War Horse Workout’ video. If the New York City Ballet can do it, so can we.”
Mr. Hermann is possibly best known for his recurring role as Trevor Langan, a defense attorney, on “Law and Order: SVU.” He also portrayed Jeremy Glick in the film “United 93.” Mr. Glick was one of the passengers on the ill-fated flight on Sept. 11, 2001, who helped stop the plane from reaching its destination.
Although he has previously appeared on Broadway in Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio,” this is Mr. Hermann’s first stint at the Vivian Beaumont.
Of the shows he has seen at the theater before treading its boards, Mr. Hermann recalls Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” as one of the most memorable. “Tom Stoppard’s writing and the performances aside, both of which were breathtaking, I found the sheer scale of it so moving,” he said. “So to step out onto that same stage every night is just a huge honor.”
“The exciting thing about theater,” he continued, “is that the audience receives the story as you’re telling it. The storytellers and the audience are sharing an experience in a room together, at the same time. And the audience is different every night: very engaged, or skeptical at first, then engaged, or very vocal, or oddly quiet because they’re listening intently. So the conversation you end up having with the audience is different every night.”
“In film or television, you tell your piece of the story, and weeks or many months later, the audience watches it. I think the theater has the power to create more of a sense of community, both for the actors and the audience. With television, your audience is scattered all over the country — in the fortunate event that people are actually watching your show.”
In between Ms. Hargitay’s work as Detective Olivia Benson on “SVU,” and Mr. Hermann’s work in “War Horse,” the couple divide their time between Manhattan and East Hampton with their 5-year-old son, August, and their newly-adopted baby girl, Amaya Josephine.
“There is a well-worn path between our house, the beach, and Scoop du Jour,” said Mr. Hermann.
On the arrival of his new daughter, Mr. Hermann said, “It was a great moment the first time we caught ourselves saying ‘kids.’ As in ‘Let’s get the kids in the car.’ That’s been a long time coming, and we couldn’t be more excited.”
Mr. Hermann professed that he had hopes for a long run, or gallop, in “War Horse.” As far as other plans, “The current goal is to learn how to install car seats without having a nervous breakdown,” he said. “I’ll get back to career plans after I get that figured out.”