Tony Award-Winning War Horse Featuring Lifelike And Life-Sized Puppetry Opens At The Landmark
Photos via GayRVA Staff
“War Horse”, who’s retelling of Michael Morpurgo’s book of the same name has garnered critical reception around the world and has received multiple Tonys. Now, the world famous play opens at the Landmark Theatre through the end of the week.
The play, now on its second North American tour, was described by TIME as “a landmark theatre event” among many other rave reviews, but you can see why that one stands out.
“It is a beautiful show about a boy and his horse” head puppeteer Jon Hoche said. “The journey they go on together with the backdrop of World War I, the amazing obstacles that come in their way to stay together.” He described the (really) hard work that has gone into the production, but focused on the “star of the show”, receiving the most buzz as not a member of the union, and in fact working only for positive critical reception.
Joey, the mechanical horse possesses insanely lifelike qualities while standing still – truly a thing to behold, and really a piece of art. Joey astounds with his kinetic realism and detailed behavior. The keys to Joey’s believable emotions, head-bobbing and many other horse mannerisms are what Jon Hoche described as their “emotional indicators”. The ears, which pivot individually towards sounds and frantically when alerted, make Joey look real. The tail rests and lifts, and sways to the side. The South African Handspring Puppet Company created a marvelous actor, which defies the definition of puppet by having such realistic qualities making it is more a near-animate being.
Outside the Landmark Theatre Tuesday morning, Joey showed off to a crowd of students and three RPD Mounted Units. The horses appeared to have a genuine interaction with the pseudo, and it was remarkable.
Three puppeteers man the underbelly of Joey during the show. Fit with sized harnesses, the three puppeteers manning the front, midsection, and rear are referred to as “the head”, “the heart”, and “the hind” respectively. An intricate network of bicycle brake cable, carbon fiber, thin fabric and aluminum, the puppeteers’ have an array of controls inside the horse, including some presumably taxing tasks. The heart is connected by a harness to the spine of Joey, so that he or she can simulate the horses breathing by lifting the entire body up and down.
“Handspring Puppet Company believes we really have to give breath to every puppet, or else they look… dead.” Hoche said. Even though he called the heart puppeteers lifting of the ribcage “the illusion of breathing”, it is really very much breathing, and heavily.
The puppets entire frame is supported by the humans inside (of which there are only two, as the head controls from the outside, appearing like a handler) which is impressive without the following fact: The horse can be ridden. So long as the actor is under 160 pounds, the horse can support a rider and realistically mimic its trot.
The puppeteers, who self-described as a mix of trained actors and puppeteers, themselves are union members. And they earn their pay. Between making the horse maintain its personality throughout the unpredictability of a stage play, and literally carrying the burden of multiple large puppets (the other large horse in the show, Topthorn, is also manned by a crew of three), they work vey hard. As for what they want at the end of the day- “Beer,” Joey puppeteer Patrick Osteen said. “You get to the end and you’re exhausted and your extremely gratified”.
All of this makes for an incredible visual experience, but the play has received rave reviews who are not simply impressed by the work of the puppeteers.
Puppet plays undoubtedly have a stigma attached, and many reviews of War Horse have clearly warned people not to apply them in this case at least, citing it as seamless and the show’s use of beautiful puppets and props.
“Puppets are often an embarrassment, involving a lot of effort and fuss for negligible returns. Not here however. Joey and the other horses in the show are truly magnificent creations by the Handspring Puppet Company which don’t aim for picturesque realism but with their wooden framework, translucent fabric skins, and extraordinary mobility somehow capture the very essence of everything equine.” Charles Spencer wrote in a review for The Telegraph. He raises an excellent point- the realism of the horse is much more in its behavior, or “personality” as the puppeteers had referred to it.
This leaves the company the ability to have a majestically colored and artful horse, rather than something that looks like taxidermy. The artistic license with the exterior of the horse adds to the realism, not detracts from it.
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