Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Favorite Moments of War Horse

Spoiler Alert: I look forward to reliving some parts of this play through writing.  Future posts will discuss the play in detail, including the ending.  If you would like to see the play in person and feel that too much prior information may dampen your experience, then read no further.  That being said, if you live near New York City, London, or another city, which the production may visit in the future, go see War Horse.  If nothing else, I promise a unique theatrical experience, but I am confident that you will walk away with much more.  No prior knowledge of horses or puppetry is necessary to enjoy the show.  If fact, I would say that I do not really like puppets and found them a little scary as a child, but the puppets of War Horse are totally original, like nothing I have ever seen before. 

War Horse is a National Theatre of Great Britain production, based on the novel by Micheal Morpurgo.  The play was adapted by Nick Stafford in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.  I enjoyed a matinee show at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont on Saturday, July 2, 2011.


My Favorite Moments of War Horse

The Entrance
War Horse is more than just a horse story, but still, a horse's tale would not be complete without the bond between horse and human, and, here, the play does not disappoint.  The young foal is purchased by the gambling father of a young man, Albert.  Albert, an only-child of sixteen years, immediately accepts the task of gentling and training the foal, whom he names "Joey".  Albert notices that Joey will half-rear if the young man throws his hands and arms up to the sky.  The excitement builds as Albert runs to different corners of the stage, throwing his arms up, asking little Joey to rear.  The foal begins to reach up higher and higher with each attempt.  In his final attempt, the foal is at the back of the stage and Albert is at the front, with his back to the audience.  

Albert yells "Come on, Joey!" and throws his arms up.

Little Joey rears up and is immediately swept away by the puppeteers as a spotlight reveals a life-sized, adult horse who rears, leaps forward towards the audience and rears again, high above our heads!  The audience gasps and cheers.  Everyone is clapping with childish grins on their faces at the magnificence of the play's hero.  The magic of Joey's entrance does not end there, as Albert hops onto his back.  The huge red horse gallops around the stage and they leap into the shadows behind the curtain.  My mouth is agape and my eyes deceive me.  What did I see?!  This sequence is truly so fast, and Joey's movements and mannerisms are so dead-on lifelike, that the audience is left starstruck.  My breath was gone and all I wanted was to see Joey again.  Since this was the very beginning of the play, I knew that I would get to see a lot more of the red horse and this made me very happy.  We were in for a great ride! 

The Puppets
For the most part, the puppets only depict animals.  There is Joey, the red horse who really deserves the title of hero even though Albert is also the play's star.  Joey is described as a hunter, a draft/thoroughbred cross.  Another life-sized horse puppet is the character Topthorn, a black thoroughbred who is a British officer's horse.  There is a goose, who provides comic relief with a reoccurring gag (no pun intended).  The goose wishes to enter the family's house, but consistently has the door slammed in his face.  The goose also eats from the ground, follows Albert's mother around the farm, flies, and bites unsuspecting visitors.  My husband and I loved his feet.  The puppeteer rolls the goose around on a wheel, which had goose feet attached to the surface  This makes it look like the bird is taking steps forward as the wheel rolls along the ground.  The play also included song birds on long poles, which flew above the audience, and crows with bright red eyes who preyed upon the fallen on the battlefield.  Joey and Topthorn were the only complete horse puppets, but there were a couple half-horses that did not require as many puppeteers and were ridden by soldier dolls in the cavalry charge.  Soldier dolls were also used to represent the fallen or wounded.  Now that I am writing this, I remember that there were two other full-sized horse puppets, but they were shadows of living horses as war had robbed them of their flesh and spirit.  They were literally skeletons pulling a large gun on wheels and they quickly succumbed to their fate before the audience's eyes.

Bringing Joey and Topthorn to Life
Each horse had two men wearing the frame of the horse on their shoulders.  One man stood in the hindquarters and worked the rear legs, which had stifles, hocks, fetlocks, and hooves, all with realistic movement.  The hip and stifle joints were represented by a wheel or gear that would raise the leg and engage the joints as the gear turned.  This was controlled by the rear puppeteer who was holding poles with levers that reminded me of the handbrake on a bicycle.  A second puppeteer wore the shoulders of the horse and worked the front legs in a similar fashion.  The front legs also had accurate joints, which the puppeteer could manipulate.  Someone in the puppet was also controlling the expressive tail and mane of the horse, although it was very difficult to tell who was responsible for these endearing movements.  A third puppeteer stood outside the horse, with the all-important task of controlling the head, neck, and ears.  These craftsmen must have studied horses immensely or are already horse people.  Joey stomped an occasional fly.  His ears were never still and his head movements illustrated the complexity of the axis/atlas joint between the skull and spine.  Like the foal, Joey's ribcage moved as he breathed and the puppeteers created all of the sounds from blowing and snorts, to whinnys and screams.  More than one puppeteer chimed in for the whinny, which created a resonating harmony.

Joey and Topthorn were surprisingly athletic.  They could walk and trot with accurate footfalls.  I believe that the canter was also accurate, but the movement was very fast, so it was difficult to see.  During a slow motion gallop or jump, four more puppeteers would surround the horse, each assigned to a hoof.  The legs were elegantly lifted up and forward with great precision and synchrony, in a transfixing dance as the music lent drama and purpose to the scene.  The puppeteers were not just talented actors, they were also physically strong, as much of this was done with a rider in the tack.  The puppets were wide, like a draft horse, and approaching 17 hands tall, which you can imagine because the shoulders and faces of the men inside the puppet were completely concealed as they balanced the weight of the puppet and man above our heads.  I only saw one female puppeteer, although there could have been more.  She worked the hind legs and tail of the foal, but since she was dressed exactly as the male puppeteers, her femininity was easily missed.

Hanging inside the theater

How I would have loved to have a puppet on display for photos, but I can understand on many levels why this was not possible.

The Art of a Dream
If you have seen the movie Inception, then you may be familiar with the concept of trying to make a dream seem real, when, in fact, dreams cannot be real by definition.  Upon learning about the art of creating a dream space, the female "architect" in the movie explains that it is more about the feel of the place, not so much the details.  This rings true for the puppets of War Horse.  They are intricate and complex puppets, but the magic is in the life which the people pour into these creatures who are really just movable frames with unblinking eyes.  If you watch the puppeteers inside the puppets, their joints, like the horse, are always engaged.  They were almost never rigid or still, even when the horse was standing at attention.  The horses did not talk in words, but did exhibit the body language of horses which was demonstrated beautifully in a paddock scene between Joey and Topthorn.  My husband noticed that the expression on the puppeteer's face matched the expression and emotion of the horse's character.  I was surprised that I missed this, but that reinforces just how difficult it is to see the puppeteers themselves.  They are quickly masked by their characters, who appear to move, think, and respond all on their own.  I would have liked very much to have taken a picture of the actors and Joey.  I would also have loved to reach my fingers up to the red muzzle and experienced the liveliness for myself.  I can imagine that the Handspring Puppet Company does not allow you do this, because to touch the inanimate horse would break the spell.

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