Puppet the centerpiece of 'War Horse' show

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 8:48 p.m.

Chris Harper will never forget the first time he saw Joey, the horse whose war-time journey is the focus of the stage play “War Horse.”

“I couldn't believe I was stroking the nose of a (puppet) horse and I'm thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?' ” says Harper, who produced the stage drama “War Horse” that had its world premiere in 2007 at the National Theatre of Great Britain in London.

Whether, like Harper, they get to touch Joey or simply watch him from their theater seats, lots of people have felt a similar fascination for the puppet horse that is the central character of this popular epic.

“War Horse” continues to play in London. The Broadway production that has been playing at Lincoln Center since March 2011 received five Tony Awards, including the 2011 award for best play.

After seeing it performed at the National Theatre, director Stephen Spielberg was inspired to translate the drama into a 2011 film that received six Oscar nominations, including one for best picture.

On Tuesday, the national touring production begins performances through Nov. 18 at the Benedum Center, Downtown, as a presentation of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh subscription series.

The bond between Joey and Albert, the young British farm boy who raised and trained him, is at the heart of this epic story that's set in England and other European countries during World War I.

Separated when Albert's dad sells Joey to the army, the boy and the horse travel separate paths through the battlefields, trenches and horrors of combat.

Audiences see the war through the horse's experiences during bloody cavalry charges and through explosions, entanglements with barbed wire and hard labor in deep mud.

They also see Albert's epic journey as he enlists in the army in an attempt to reunite with Joey.

The tale of courage, loyalty and friendship also has moments of beauty and comic relief in addition to interludes of music and song.

“The journey you go on as an audience member is so theatrical,” Harper says. “The puppets allow you to go through the journey and suspend your disbelief.”

Harper credits the work of Handspring Puppet Company, the South Africa-based company that designed, built and directed the show's puppetry.

In creating Joey and another army stallion named Topthorn, Handspring's artistic director Adrian Kohler and executive producer Basil Jones had challenges to overcome.

Because the horses would need to be strong enough to transport a human rider but light enough not to overwhelm the team of three puppeteers that bring him to life, the animals were built with aluminum, cane and leather skeletons and frames and covered with a mesh-like fabric that becomes opaque when properly lit.

The result, says Kohler is: “You see a horse. You know it's not a horse, and you are excited by the movement and the horse-like nature of its construction.

Additionally when National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner gave the project his approval, he had one stipulation: The horse cannot speak, Harper recalls.

So Kohler and Jones found alternate ways for Joey to communicate.

“The horse was a very articulate entity that had to communicate emotions,” Jones says.

Over time, the creators and the team of performers who generate the horse's movements learned how to refine its breath, its ears and its movements in ways that speak eloquently to both Albert and the audience.

“Ears are one of the important emotional indicators. You need sensitive manipulation … a horse ‘sees' with its ears. They are as important as eyes,” Kohler says.

The result, Harper says “is like nothing people have seen on the stage before. When the lead character is a puppet, it's a hugely terrifying thing to do. But it paid off. It elevates (the production) because of its uniqueness.”

30 years in the making

Author Michael Morpurgo has written 120 books for young readers, at least five of which have been made into movies. But none of them created as much attention as “War Horse.”

That attention was a long time in coming.

When “War Horse” was first published in England in 1982, the book sold well enough but was far from a blockbuster, says Morpurgo, 69, during a phone call from his farm in southern England. Over the years, it continued to sell a thousand or so copies each year, both in England and in the United States, where it was published in 2007.

“I had no expectation of success,” he says. “All I cared about was writing a book I cared about.”

“War Horse” napped for two decades while Morpurgo wrote other books and pursued other projects.

In addition to writing fiction for children at a variety of age levels, he and his wife, Clare, founded Farms for City Children that brings urban youngsters to one of the organization's three working farms where they get a hands-on experience in where their food comes from.

If he gave any thought to “War Horse,” it was most often when he asked his wife's opinion about his most recently completed book.

She would tell him that the new book was good, but not as good as “War Horse”

“The completely irritating thing is my wife always thought ‘War Horse' was my best book. … I'm afraid she's right.”

In 2004, Morpurgo's life began a new chapter when Tom Morris, an associate director at the National Theatre in London, was looking for a family-friendly play to fill the Christmas season slot in the company's schedule.

Morris' mother suggested he read “War Horse.” Morris thought translating Morpurgo's story about World War I told from a horse's perspective was a fitting project for collaboration between the National Theatre and the South African-based Handspring Puppet Company.

Three years, three workshops and many drafts and changes later, “War Horse” began performances on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre.

Morpurgo was in the audience.

“I was not prepared for the impact on the first night of previews,” says Morpurgo, who had advised and observed the show's progress from the margins. “You could see the effect it had on everyone. I think we realized we had witnessed a major event. I was stunned by the effect drama could have universally on everyone in the theater.”

Morpurgo confesses at time he finds his late-in-life rise to fame almost irritating.

But, there are pleasures, as well.

“I love the rollercoaster. … Suddenly, you're on the top of the New York Times best-seller list, how wonderful is that — that the book, through the play and the film, is reaching millions and millions of new readers. It's a lovely thing that has happened.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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