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'War Horse' gallops into Baltimore

Joey's earliest memories were mostly "a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables." But one thing he clearly remembered was the horse sale. "The terror of it stayed with me all of my life," he said.

No wonder. Joey was the one being sold.

That's how the popular 1982 book "War Horse" by children's author Michael Morpurgo begins. Told in Joey's voice, the story moves quickly from Devonshire in southwestern England, where the horse is lovingly raised on a farm by a boy named Albert, to the hideous battlefields of France in World War I after Joey is sold to the British army for use in the cavalry.

What happens to the horse and to Albert, who fibs his way into uniform to search for Joey, makes quite an adventure. With its strong and disturbing images, its lessons about friendship, bravery and loyalty, this saga was probably destined to be adapted for another medium. But the stage? Given the focus on a horse, surely a TV or movie prospect was more likely.

"War Horse" did eventually make it to the screen in a 2011 Stephen Spielberg film. But that was a few years after the book had been transformed, thanks to inspired use of puppetry, into one of the most successful stage works of our time.

The theatrical version of "War Horse," which will be hitched to the Hippodrome this week, packs an extraordinary visual punch. That helps to explain why the show has been running in London's West End since 2009 and also made an impact on Broadway, where it earned five Tony Awards, including Best Play, in 2011.

"War Horse" has been touring North America for a year and a half now. Another tour is taking place in the U.K. and Ireland. There have been productions in Berlin and Australia as well.

"No one here predicted it would be a hit," says Chris Harper, producer at Britain's National Theatre. "There was a lot of doubt about it. We started out figuring we'd get maybe 50 performances. But this has been our most successful show in our 50 years. Our new theater was paid for by the profits of 'War Horse' on Broadway."

This good fortune began when staffers at the company were looking around for a prospect to fill the slot of an annual family show. The mother of the National Theatre's then-associate director Tom Morris suggested that they read a children's book that had been published and largely forgotten 25 years earlier, a book called "War Horse."

"So we did," Harper says. "Then we called up Michael Morpurgo and said, 'Hello, can we adapt your book?' He said OK, but he wanted to know how we were going to do it. We told him, 'With puppets.' "

That gave the author pause.

"Absurd, I thought," Morpurgo told the Telegraph, "but it's the National Theatre, for goodness sake. Maybe they know what they're doing."

They did.

The theater engaged the innovative Handspring Puppet Company, based in Cape Town, South Africa, to design life-size puppets for Joey and the other important equine character, Topthorn, a stallion who shares with Joey a troubled fate that includes capture by the Germans.

More layers were added to "War Horse" as the play, adapted by Nick Stafford, took shape; richly atmospheric music by John Tams and Adrian Sutton became a particularly crucial element. During the development process, which lasted more than two years, the creative team questioned everything.

"How can you have a hit where the lead character can't speak? You can do that in a book, obviously, but we didn't want it to look funny onstage," Harper says. "Would puppets hold an audience's attention?"

In the end, worries were swept aside. "War Horse" galloped into the spotlight, winning over the public and, largely, the press.

The production, directed by Morris and Marianne Elliott and designed by Rae Smith (they all received Tonys for their work, as did lighting and sound designers), manages to tell an epic story in a personal way that can pull in adults and young people alike.

As any boy-and-his-horse tale would do, this one deals with growing up, learning responsibility and the like. But the issue of war and its toll on humans and animals, not to mention values, gives the play a much deeper resonance. It's a story of life and, unflinchingly, of death.

Above all, like the original source material, this remains a horse-centric experience, and that's what seems to grab people more than anything.

The puppets of Joey — first as a colt, then full-size — and Topthorn have such a strong presence that they seem every bit as real as the rest of the cast. There is no anthropomorphizing, a la "The Lion King"; these mechanical horses behave and sound like regular horses. (Handspring Puppet Company received a special Tony for its work when the show played Broadway.)

Formed out of cane, fabric and other materials, standing up to 7 feet tall and weighing between 70 and 90 pounds, each $100,000 puppet is manipulated by a team of three puppeteers.

The horse handlers have to develop the tight cohesion needed to make every neigh, whinny, snort, nuzzle, ear position (straight when relaxed, pulled back when upset), trot and gallop ring true. The audience can see the team members doing this manipulating and making sound effects, but it takes only a few seconds to forget they are there.

"People are so moved by it," Harper says. "And it becomes a very emotional thing for the puppeteers, too."

Four sets of horse teams are required for the show. The members of each team train as a group for two weeks, then rehearse the production for another six weeks before joining a cast, Harper says. The puppeteers alternate between Joey and Topthorn.

One of the team members heading to Baltimore this week is Curt James, who has performed "War Horse" in London, Toronto and on the American tour.

"There are now hundreds of us who get to share these incredible contraptions," James says. "To do this job, you have to be able to inhabit two distinct horse personalities and get the chemistry between Joey and Topthorn, which varies."

This graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London came to the show with some long-developed skills.

"At 7, I made my own puppets and put on a puppet show," James says. "I'm 34 now and make my living with a more sophisticated device. But I consider myself an actor. Every actor goes into the profession with an element of wanting to be seen; this job is about losing your ego. The role is completely shared by all three [puppeteers in the team]. No one has ownership of the role."

Although he had experience with puppetry onstage (he was in the famous Anthony Minghella production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" that originated at the English National Opera in 2005 and used a puppet for the heroine's young son), James had no equestrian leanings.

"I am not a horsey person at all," he says. "I didn't feel a massive affinity for the horses when I started the show. But then I became obsessed. I watched mounted police till they became suspicious of me. I still feel like I'm learning."

One thing all of the horse handlers need is physical stamina, especially given that characters in the play ride the horses at times, adding to the burden for the enablers beneath.

"It requires a very specific skill set," James says, "and it takes conditioning and maintenance of our bodies. But we are very well looked after."

Physical therapy is provided throughout the tour, Harper says, in an effort to protect the actors. There are also backstage personnel ever ready to help the "horses," too.

"The puppets are incredibly robust, but every so often, they do break and the show does stop," James says. "It's live theater. But we have a great crew that never takes long at all to make repairs. Unfortunately, the illusion is broken, and the audience sees something they're not supposed to see. But I think they enjoy finding out how it all works."

In addition to spare legs and hooves, the "War Horse" tour travels with 90 people, 38 of them actors.

"It's an epic story, so you can't do it on a small scale," Harper says.

While maintaining the scope, the touring production does offer some changes from the original in London. Language, for one. Instead of having German and French characters speak in their native tongues, English is used by everyone.

"I think this is an improvement," Harper says. "Even the U.K. tour is now all in English, and at some point we will change the London show."

The production looks a little different, too; some props are wheeled into place, for example, rather than arriving by revolving stage. But the majestic presence provided by the crucial four-footed props remains the same. So does the whole point of "War Horse," a point that takes on extra relevance this year.

"2014 is the centenary of World War I, and war is still such a big part of our lives," Harper says. "Hopefully, 'War Horse' will help prompt a new debate on how all war is futile, really."

Adds James: "It's very important to keep the memory alive of what happened in the First World War. I think 'War Horse' resonates in such a strong way. It's a great opportunity to remind people, and to send the message that peace is possible."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"War Horse" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Feb. 9 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $100 (plus service fees). Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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