Hit any D.C. dog park, click on Cuteoverload.com or stream the corny-but-kind-of-good romance “Marley & Me” and you’ll witness touching evidence of humanity’s connection with domesticated animals. It’s a bond that’s far harder to get across onstage.
But in “War Horse,” the hit spin on Michael Morpurgo’s boy-and-his-horse tale now on at the Kennedy Center, trios of actor-puppeteers bring so much life to the title horse, Joey, it’s nearly impossible for audiences not to be moved by the central love story.
The larger-than-life puppet/costume that three groups of actors take turns powering from show to show was created by South Africa’s acclaimed Handspring Puppet Co. out of woody cane. With its steel spine and thin skin of transparent mesh, the creation takes the shape of a nearly 8-foot-tall stallion. It comes alive when the three-person team (dressed as World War I working-class men in Ireland) disappears into the skeleton. Each person is assigned a part of the horse, the “head” (the front of the animal), the “heart” (center body) or the “hind” (tail and back legs).
The audience meets Joey as a colt just as the war is starting, when he’s bought by a Green Isle farmer for his son, Albert (Andrew Veenstra). Joey transforms from a stiff-legged colt (powered by two puppeteers) into a galloping, fence-jumping, oat-chomping adult horse thanks to the actors’ dancelike coordination. Joey’s mane is tossed, his tail twitches, his ears move, and he even lets out the occasional sigh. The effect is astonishingly organic.
“Handspring focuses so much on breathing that the horse ends up moving anatomically,” says Gregory Manley, one of the actors on “hind” duty. “It ends up going out of the rules of other types of puppetry and moving closer to reality.”
As the story progresses, Joey is sold to the British army and sees dramatic battle action. Then, after falling into German hands, Joey pulls ambulances and eventually ends up in No Man’s Land.
The play is physically demanding for the people carrying the 85-pound costume — and the occasional rider. “It’s extreme when there’s a rider on [Joey],” says Brian Robert Burns, who fills the “heart” role on a team with Manley. “We have a 170-pound cap on riders, but initially, it feels like something that can’t be done.” (A harness makes the weight more manageable for the actors inside the horse.)
Still, as the battles go on, with Albert eventually in pursuit of his beloved horse, the audience ends up seeing less and less of the men behind the curtain and more of Joey’s inner horse. By the time a similarly constructed “tank” blisters onstage in Act 2, the audience is right there with the stallion, under a firestorm of clever black-and-white scrimmed special effects, rooting for boy and his beast to make it through the trenches and be reunited.
In an Irish town just before World War I, a farmer buys a half work horse/half thoroughbred colt at an auction. His son, Albert, falls hard for the animal, christening it Joey and training it as it grows to maturity. His father, tempted by money, sells the horse to the British army, and Joey sees both battle action and ambulance duty in France as Albert — now a young man and soldier — searches for him on the battlefield.