Arts & Culture
7:51 am
Wed March 19, 2014

'War Horse' Salutes World War I's Equine Brigade

Joey the War Horse, in the play by the same name, surrounded by villagers.
Credit @broadway.com

The National World War I Museum, housed at the base of the Liberty Memorial, is this year marking the 100th anniversary of the start of that war. By pure coincidence, the national tour of the Tony Award-winning play War Horse arrives at the Music Hall next month, creating a rare convergence of history and theatricality in Kansas City.

Confounding the skeptics

When the National Theatre in London first decided to team up with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Theatre to stage the play War Horse, it was thought it would be limited to the slot for its annual Christmas show aimed at children, recalls a producer at the National, Chris Harper.

“At that point, we all thought, this is an interesting experimental piece of theater that's not going to be anything more than at very best fifty performances in our largest theater, the Olivier Theatre,” Harper says.

“So over a two and a half year period, we kept trying to develop this piece into something that could be meaningful for audiences. But I think there was a lot of skepticism and a lot of cynicism that we would have a puppet as the central character. People's knowledge of how puppetry is is marionettes and not the most sophisticated of art forms, although brilliant in many ways.”

Stretching boundaries

Seven years later, the show is still playing in London, won the Tony for Best Play in New York, and has embarked on a national tour coming to Kansas City in April.

Its protagonist is a horse named Joey, called into service for England during World War I, and indeed comes to life via Handspring's artistry. But as Harper says, it's done in a way that stretches the definition of what puppetry has traditionally meant.

“There are what we call the emotional indicators on the horse, where the ears and the tail move, and the hooves, and the noises the puppeteers make is really really extensive,” Harper says. “And they study horse psychology for a two-week period before they begin rehearsals.

“So we knew we had something interesting in the first moment we saw the first prototype of the horse. I remember my first time I saw it, I was close to tears. And I cannot understand even to this day why I felt so emotional.”

The 'War Horse' whose behaviors depend on the expertise of extensively trained puppeteers.
Credit © Broadway.com

Harper confirms that there is no use of computers, and no hardware inside the horses. Rather, it is all about physicality, choreography, and human strength.

“That's right,” he says. “It’s all about bamboo and cane. I mean, we use some bicycle wires, some pulleys and levers that go inside the hoof of the piece, but essentially it's a puppet made of bamboo that's soaked in a certain type of oil that allows it to be stretched and bent. And it takes 10 months to make the puppets.

Harper is also quick to point out that Joey is not the only horse depicted in the play.

“We have nine horses at one point in the show,” he says. “There is a moment at the end of act one where the horses are charging into battle and it's one of the most spectacular moments in the play.”

Making connections

For a year, Caden Douglas was one of the puppeteers who brought Joey to life in the Toronto production and he joins the tour playing an officer. He explains the physical demands of animating a full-size horse and why the effort is worth it.

“It’s a bit like cross-training in that you are carrying a lot of weight on your shoulders and you're also running around,” Douglas says. “Even when you're still, you're still maintaining the integrity of the puppets.

“Very early on you see Joey, a foal, and the puppeteers are totally exposed, but within a few seconds, you kind of stop seeing them and you focus on the horse. Its incredible to watch the audience grow and care and love that horse and it's a testament to the work of the puppeteers that those inanimate objects end up having a soul and a life that people deeply connect with.”

In addition to the week of live performances at the Music Hall, the show can be seen on local movie screens this week through the National Theatre Live program, which has been doing gangbuster business filming its productions and piping them into theaters across the globe.

National Theatre Live's 'War Horse,' March 19 and 22, at Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo. 913-383-7756. 

Broadway Across America presents 'War Horse,' April 1 - 6, at the Music Hall, 301 W. 13th Street,  Kansas City, Mo., 1-800-745-3000.