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The illusion of ‘War Horse’

By Peter Marks, Bonnie Berkowitz and Alberto Cuadra
Washington Post

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  • ‘War Horse’

    Tony-winning play about a farm boy and the horse he loves during World War I, told with life-size, metal-and-wood puppets. May 28-June 2, Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

    Details: $54.50-$119.50; 704-372-1000, www.blumenthalarts.org.



The magnificent equine puppets that rear up and canter and whinny are the stars of “War Horse,” the Tony-winning, British-born play, and the teams of actors who manipulate their ears, necks, torsos and tails are its heroes.

The creatures, movingly conjured by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones for South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Co., are skeletal, transparent: They manage to seem at once both sturdy and ethereal.

But even if you’re meant to recognize that three skilled human beings are required to operate each of the realistic-size mechanisms, the actors by and by fall out of your field of vision, and what your eyes tend to rest on is an uncanny intimation of life, in the animals’ own eyes.

This illusion is essential to one’s enjoyment of the touring “War Horse” opening Tuesday at Belk Theater. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo that was developed into a 2011 movie by Steven Spielberg, this gritty, at times violent fairy tale succeeds more on the basis of its visual lyricism than any of its literary qualities.

Joey the War Horse doesn’t appear to be astoundingly equine.

And then suddenly, he does.

The legs, the head, the tail cease seeming to be a collection of parts. Working in magical concert, they complete, assuredly and uncannily, the bearing of a majestic animal, one you come to believe is capable of expressing the emotion that many in an audience attending “War Horse,” in fact, might also feel for him: something akin to love.

How is this possible?

How does Joey cross the invisible barrier from dormant swatches and screws, to vibrant flesh and blood? At its most persuasive, puppetry is indeed a transformative art.

Hanging motionless backstage, the puppet star of “War Horse” looks only vaguely equine, like framework on which someone plans to build an animal. But the preening, snorting, galloping Joey that bursts onstage is, without question, a horse. The difference, say its creators, is the movement and the audience.

“I think part of what’s special about puppets is that you’re working with a thing that is dead, and you have to struggle every second on the stage to make it live,” said Jones of Handspring Puppet Co. in South Africa.

“Once there is enough puppet pulling you in, you start filling in the rest,” said Kohler, Handspring’s artistic director and Jones’ partner of 41 years. “But you’ve got to be convinced in the beginning, and that’s the hard part.”

Head puppeteer

Stands outside the horse and operates the ears, head and neck. The control handle flips easily to either side so that the puppeteer doesn’t get stuck between the horse and the audience. One of the Head’s main responsibilities is using a fixed handle behind the puppet’s eyes to make sure the head is oriented correctly, so the horse appears to be looking where it’s supposed to be looking.

Heart puppeteer

Operates the front legs and part of the neck, but his key responsibility is the horse’s breath. The puppet’s torso rests in slots over the legs so it easily slides up and down, making the horse appear to exhale and inhale as the Heart bends and straightens his knees. Kohler said Joey’s breathing is what makes him seem to be alive. For that reason, the Heart is constantly in motion and has to be the strongest of the three puppeteers.

Hind puppeteer

Operates the tail and back legs from angled rods that resemble ski poles. He often initiates movement because his view of the stage can be better than the Heart’s, who is sometimes blocked by the head and mane. Both the Heart and Hind stand upright and must be of similar height, usually 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 10.

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