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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 31 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 35
The magic of War Horse
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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The magic of War Horse

Stage production's genius puppeteers bring 'Joey' to life

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

WAR HORSE
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
February 13-24, 2013


War horse. The very phrase summons images of majestic equines and the horrors of the battlefield. In either case, the play of the same name illustrates both of these in telling the story of the courage, determination, and unique friendship between an Irish boy and the incredible horse he raises. Galloping away with the a slew of awards as easily as a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby, this Olivier and Tony Award-winning play inspired the Spielberg film, and its national touring production will soon be trotting into Seattle.

Based on the best-selling children's book by award-winning author Michael Morpurgo, the story tells of 16-year-old Albert, who raises a young foal he names Joey. After Joey is drafted into the British cavalry at the outset of World War I, Albert lies about his age and enlists with the hope of bringing his horse back home. Joey sees action in both the British and German armies before finding himself alone in the no-man's land of barbed wire and tank trenches. Told from the perspective of the horse (though without any words from the animal), this powerful story comes to life on the stage, offering keen insight into the life and service of animals in wartime.

MAGICAL PUPPETRY
The horse is 'played' by three men - two within the animal's wooden frame and one controlling the head from the outside. All wear period costumes of brown pants with boots - the team doesn't try to hide from the audience. It is only by working as one, and with the finely tuned craftsmanship of Handspring Puppet Company, that they seem to cast a cloak of invisibility around themselves, leaving us seeing only the horse.

'There are four different teams - of three people - that work the horses,' said Tommy Luther, a trained actor before joining the production. 'One works the hindquarters while another works the front quarters inside the wooden frame. A third person works the head from outside of it.'

Luther, who has been with the show since one of its earliest workshops in 2005, works the head, ears, and eyeline of the horse. Each of the three men has his own responsibility for bringing the wooden frame to life. The teams rotate schedules, due to the physical work involved. 'One team works only Joey,' explained Tim Lewis, who plays Captain Stewart, the cavalry commander. 'Another team works only Topthorn (another cavalier horse), and then there are two teams that alternate between them.'

'Working the hindquarters also means working the tail,' said Ian Piears, who operates that portion of the puppet. 'The tail and ears are the expressions and communication of the horse itself. Since it can't speak with words, the animal speaks with its eyes and ears and sounds.'

Piears had previous training as an actor before coming to Handspring to work with War Horse. 'It's the hindquarters that keeps the foot patterns and gait of the horse,' much like a rear-wheeled vehicle.

'The front quarters is the literal heart of the horse,' explained Stuart Angell, who is the newest member of this particular horse team, and who controls the front end. 'Controlling the breath is a large part of making the wooden puppet become a living entity.' And making it breathe is no easy feat - there are approximately 100 pounds of wood, leather, and sturdy cables here.

But alive it becomes. Within moments of watching the wooden frame move, one sees it transform into a living horse - snorting, shifting, trotting, galloping, and even rearing back on its hind legs with such amazing detail that anyone watching would swear they were seeing a National Geographic special.

'We've had to study horses,' said Piears. 'How they move, breathe, and stand.' Angell added, 'There were many trips to the zoo.' And, Luther continued, 'after all that, we watched videos and even YouTube.'

A SECRET REVEALED
'There's a lot that we [team members] have to communicate with each other,' said Luther. 'And we can't speak at all.' So, he says, all the communicating is done through the animal's breath. Each sound made speaks to the others involved in the horse's movements, signaling when to walk, trot, or gallop, as well as signaling separate ear and tail movement. But they have to be careful not to 'speak' too often.

'Less is more,' noted Angell. 'While a horse breathes and snorts and shifts its feet frequently, it's easy to overdo it and make it become a cartoon.'

'It's a very fine line,' Piears agreed.

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Handspring Puppet Company was founded in 1981. The company began its work with War Horse in 2005 (with directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), starting with two men walking around connected by wooden boards. The boards became a shell and frame, eventually becoming living, breathing muscles connected by leather and cables. The final result is puppetry of such complexity and realism that it makes The Lion King seem like Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

War Horse first opened at the Royal National Theatre in 2007, moving to the West End's New London Theatre in 2009, where it still plays. It has been nominated for six Olivier Awards (including Best New Play) and has won two. In New York, the play opened at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center on March 15, 2011, where it continues to play. The American production was nominated for and won five Tony Awards, including Best Play of 2011 and a special award to Handspring Puppet Company for Puppet Design, Fabrication, and Direction. The 2011 film adaption of War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg, was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.

War Horse is coming to Seattle as a co-production of the Paramount Theatre (Broadway Across America) and Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Seattle Rep is now in its 50th year.) Group tickets are already available, with individual ticket sales starting in November.

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