Tony-Award winning stage spectacle moves audience members to tears
By David Freeland
WarHorse, the astounding theatrical experience that opened in Fort Lauderdale in May and returns to Miami in March 2014, exerts its pull from the moment the title character, Joey, first trots on stage as a foal, petted by his owner and best friend, 15-year old Albert. The audience gasps, aware that Joey is a puppet, not a real horse, but captivated by the way he shudders and whinnies at Albert’s loving touch. Joey’s lifelike eyes, shining and reflective, draw us into the soul of his journey; as the evening progresses, and Albert sets out to rescue Joey after he has been sold to the English cavalry, we find ourselves carried along and hoping for Joey to make it home.
It’s that kind of emotional power that has made War Horse an international phenomenon, sweeping up audiences and awards on both sides of the Atlantic and even inspiring an Oscar®-nominated film directed by Steven Spielberg. Most recently, War Horse won five 2011 Tony® Awards (including Best Play) for its New York premiere, plus a Special Tony® Award for Handspring Puppet Company for creating the eleven puppets at the heart of the show.
“One of the things we like to imagine,” observes Basil Jones, who runs Handspring with co-founder Adrian Kohler, “is people in the audience nudging the person next to them, saying, ‘did you see that?’”
Set during the First World War and based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel, War Horse combines a powerful story with thrilling stagecraft and music. In addition, it showcases what may be the most inventive use of puppetry ever seen on a North American stage. Soon after meeting him as a young horse, we watch in amazement as an adult Joey, seven feet tall, materializes before our eyes. Two puppet masters working inside Joey’s frame (built of light, malleable cane) raise and lower his torso, letting out forceful breaths, while a third manipulates his ears, lifting and pulling them back to register tender shades of emotion. Spielberg’s film version of War Horse employs real horses, but these onstage creations fully personalize equine ideals of courage, strength and loyalty in ways that reinforce the themes of the story.
During World War I, more than one million horses were conscripted by the British military alone; of these, only 62,000 returned. As Joey is forced into battle, serving in both the British and German armies, we are moved by his bravery and the trust he places in those who exploit his strength. His innocence makes him seem above the fighting: In War Horse, animals behave with a dignity that humans do not always achieve. Still, Joey is unprepared for the true brutality of 20th century warfare.
Determined to save his horse, Albert runs away from home with the hope of getting close to the front. Will Albert find Joey in time? As War Horse reaches its beautiful climax, the hopes of parents, children, and beloved friends merge into a shared experience, as tissues are drawn from pockets and eyes glisten with tears.