‘War Horse’: Broadway favorite gallops into StranahanWritten by Vicki L. Kroll | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Horse power — that’s the specialty harnessed by the Handspring Puppet Company.
Behold Joey, the beautiful, majestic star of the theatrical production “War Horse.”
Standing 24 hands high (about 8 feet), the puppet weighs 120 pounds with a frame mostly made of stained cane.
It takes three puppeteers to put Joey through his paces onstage.
“[Handspring Puppet Company is] very much adamant about giving puppets breath and making sure all their puppets breathe,” said Jon Hoche, puppet captain with the U.S. tour of the play. “They want to give the horses breath, and it takes all three of the puppeteers to do that.”
Hoche oversees the equine’s head, while another mans the heart and front legs, and the third controls the hindquarters. The creature’s spine is tethered to the backs of the two puppeteers so that their movements mimic breathing.
“Handspring Puppet Company tries to find emotional indicators on all their projects, and they really stress the importance of not only stillness in their puppets, but also micro-movement within their puppet,” Hoche explained.
“The horses are larger than life and it’s one thing to have them galloping across stage and doing all these amazing things like full cavalry charges, but there are real magical moments where you see this horse standing in the stable just breathing; you’ll see just a very small flick of the ear. Those kind of moments really bring the audience into the play and really have them investing in the characters like they’re real horses.”
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s play has generated unbridled excitement since premiering in London in 2007. It opened on Broadway in 2011 and won five Tonys, including Best Play and a special award for Handspring Puppet Company.
The book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2011 movie.
“War Horse” tells the tale of an English boy, Albert, and his beloved horse Joey. At the start of World War I, the two are separated when Joey is sent to be part of the cavalry. Although too young to enlist, Albert is determined to find his four-legged friend.
“It’s a great story that we can all find ourselves in, a story of friendship. Many of us have had a pet or an animal that we’ve had a great affection for growing up and we’d do anything for that animal,” Hoche said. “It’s that great story of friendship and loyalty, and it’s an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows and what we’ll do to keep that friendship alive.”
During a call from a tour stop in Louisville, Ky., Hoche said he saw the show, fell in love with it and auditioned. Luckily, the actor had puppetry skills in his stable.
“One of my favorite parts is when Joey is a foal at the beginning of the show, specifically because the three puppeteers that operate the puppet are all on the outside of the baby foal,” he said. “We’re showing the audience that yes, this is a puppet; yes, there are puppeteers here that are not dressed in black, they’re dressed in period pieces; and we’re not making excuses and we’re not trying to ask for forgiveness or anything about it. We’re just being very upfront: This show has puppets and they’re very amazing.
“I think it gives the audience an opportunity to see and recognize it and then they kind of forget about it by the time they see Joey all grown up, which I think is one of the most exciting parts of the show when he officially grows up.”
“War Horse” trots into Toledo for seven shows Dec. 4-8 at the Stranahan Theater. Tickets range from $33-$68.
“There’s never been a show like this before where the lead of the show is not only an animal, but an animal that is in fact an animal — it doesn’t sing or dance or talk, and it doesn’t understand English or French or German. It’s completely an animal,” Hoche said. “And that’s never been done before and it’s really exciting, and the use of the puppetry complements that and also brings an organic feel to it.”