And I knew as soon as he said it that he was a kindred spirit: a theater lover who worries, reflexively, whenever animals are in a play. Are they being treated well? Are they scared? These anxieties are partly for them, but also for our own gooey hearts. I say that, mind you, as someone who has always hated classic westerns because the horses fall down. As for circuses, I’ll go to the kind that has only humans in it.
A bashful question
Onstage, playwrights and directors know the power of putting animals in a show: They affect us viscerally, in ways that human actors can’t. Their presence can be glorious. It can also be fraught. That’s true whether the animals are live or puppets, seen onstage or (like the dog in “Yen,” Off Broadway in 2017) just vividly talked about. Which sounds strange until you consider what an act of imagination theater is, how much we’re projecting onto it.
Still, I’d thought for years that I was the only one who braced herself against plays involving animals, particularly those in peril, or who regarded “War Horse” with dread, despite the magnificence of its puppetry.
Then, a couple of seasons ago, into my inbox popped an email from a tough-minded fellow critic. I’d just reviewed a show at St. Ann’s Warehouse, one that it somehow hadn’t occurred to me to worry about. Based, like “War Horse,” on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” was also set in wartime, and also had a puppet animal at its center — a feline named Tips, separated from the little girl who loves her. Not having seen it yet, Elisabeth Vincentelli had a bashful question: Does anything awful happen to the cat?
“I have a hard time with lost animals,” she added, “even offstage puppets!”
We critics, some of us, are tenderer than you’d think.