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Within minutes of seeing the puppet horses in War Horse, you cease to view them as brilliantly crafted creations of molded cane, nylon, triggers, gears and cables. Instead, the equine lead, Joey, and his battlefield comrade, Topthorn, gallop, trot, breathe, snort, tremble, rear up on their hind legs, and charge into battle with such realism that their human puppeteers seem invisible.
Based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse tells the story a farm boy, Albert (Seth Numrich), and the horse he raises from a foal only to lose him to the British Army cavalry in France at the start of World War I.
Albert lies about his age to join the Army and follow Joey, who, like a million English horses, faced German artillery and barbed wire designed to trap them on the battlefields. Albert and Joey’s odyssey -- equal parts family drama, military history, and intimate portrait of men in battle -- was called a “landmark theater event” by Time magazine.
An enormous hit at London’s National Theatre and then on the West End, War Horse arrived at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater with a new American cast, including Numrich, who joined the company fresh from playing Lorenzo in the recent Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice.
“We were very nervous about this very British story about a war that we have less of a relationship to in the United States,” says Numrich. “We were protective of these horses; we wanted people to believe in them, and if they didn’t we’d all just be crushed.”
All fears were allayed, however, after the first night of previews. “We knew the audience believed and they would go on this journey with us,” says Numrich after observing their reaction to the unparalleled -- and unforgettable -- theatrical experience that is War Horse.
The big payoff came on June 12, when the breathtaking combination of sweeping story and miraculous craftsmanship took home five Tony Awards, including Best Play (adapted by Nick Stafford), Best Direction (Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris), Best Scenic Design (Rae Smith), Best Lighting Design (Paula Constable), and Best Sound Design (Christopher Shutt). In addition (although not all that surprisingly), The Handspring Puppet Company won a special Tony for developing Joey and company.
Handspring’s Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler designed the five horses (and other animals) in War Horse, starting with a cardboard model before graduating to the cane skeleton that requires three puppeteers to operate. Joey is the play’s undisputed star horse, with Topthorn a supporting steed. Joey is smaller and willful; Topthorn is a thoroughbred, more the aristocrat. But what binds them is the technical skill that lets their ears move more than 180 degrees, their eyes flash, their flanks shiver and their tails twitch.
Three teams of puppeteers alternate to bring Joey to life. “They each do things differently,” Numrich says, “so I can’t depend on reacting the way I did the night before.” And the cast bought into the puppets’ realism from the first rehearsal. “They immediately came to life for all us, as real animals with very specific characters,” he recalls.
Audiences were just as accepting. Early on, he says, the sight of Joey as a young colt has “people staring with their mouths open, enraptured -- children and adults alike.”
In a combat scene later in the play, Albert is blinded from a gas attack and Joey’s wounds are being examined. “I can’t see a thing,” he says, “but I’m a few feet from the audience, and almost every night, you hear their audible reactions.”
Numrich went on to observe that since the rehearsals, he has returned to Morpurgo’s 1982 novel: “It gives me so much insight. It’s a story about war that is told from the point of view of an animal who can’t choose sides.”
War Horse is currently playing an open-ended run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St. at Lincoln Center. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or click here.
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