Acclaimed WWI drama 'War Horse' comes to the Straz Center in Tampa

mclear@bradenton.comApril 28, 2013 

Among the countless challenges of bringing the classic novel "War Horse" to the stage, bringing the title character to life had to be among the difficult and most essential.

The audience experiences the story largely through Joey, the horse that is taken from his bucolic English home to the horrific battlefields of World War I France. The horse is central to the story and the audience has to believe he's real.

To achieve the effect, the creators of "War Horse," which comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa for eight performances starting April 30, decided to use a puppet.

But it's a puppet unlike any most audience members have ever seen.

It took 14 people to build Joey. He weighs 120 pounds and he's made mostly of cane that was soaked and bent into shape. He has an aluminum frame, covered in leather, so that actors can ride him. He's almost 10 feet long and about 8 feet tall and has 20 joints. His mane and his tail are made of Tyvek, the stuff that home builders wrap new houses in to keep out water.

Inside Joey, usually invisible to the audience, are three actors. One controls the front, one the middle, one the rear (or in the parlance of the show, the head, heart and hind).

"We rotate the teams due to the physical nature of playing Joey," said Rob Laqui, who will be playing the hind in four of the eight shows in Tampa. He and his fellow team members, Christopher Mai and Harlan Bengel, are the main Joey on the national tour, but get a break from the demands of the lead role by playing other horses, or even playing actual roles, for some shows.

"The puppets have a certain amount of weight," Bengel, the "heart" actor, said, "and you have to support that for the whole show. And then people actually ride the horses and the actor adds another 150 pounds."

Physical exertion is only one of the challenges, though. Joey is the emotional center of the show, and the actors have to be able to evoke emotion from inside the puppet.The story, which comes from a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, has to do with a British boy whose beloved horse is sold to the Army at the beginning of World War I. The boy lies about his age and enlists in the Army to try to find his horse and bring him home to safety. Its London run that started six years ago won lots of major awards, and when "War Horse" moved to Broadway, it won six Tony Awards including Best Play, and the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Outstanding Play. In 2011, the novel was also adapted into a popular film by Steven Spielberg.

Joey's ears are made of leather, and the "head" actor controls them with levers connected to bicycle brake cable. Because horses express emotions largely with their ears and tails, those parts move, but the eyes and lips do not. The "heart" actor can even control the horse's breathing.

"We approach this as actors," Laqui said. "I tell people if they come one night and they like it, come see it again. It will be a different experience with a different team playing Joey. It's just like seeing a play two different times with two different actors in the leading role."

It's in many ways more challenging than playing a human character, partly because all the actors have to constantly but silently communicate. Laqui, Mai and Bengel were strangers when they started working together. But they've learned to detect and interpret subtle movements that their partners make.

"When Harlan makes a motion in the heart, or even if Rob does something in the hind, I can feel it way up in the front," Mai said. "Then I know it's time to go left or rear up or whatever. It's all about communication and working with people."

The horse's emotional performance is so essential that it's usually actors or dancers who are inside the puppet, not puppeteers. Laqui, Mai and Bengel all come primarily from a dance background.

Joey and the other puppets -- there are four horses in the show -- were created by a South African group called Handspring Puppet Company. People for Handspring continuously make changes to the puppets to make them more expressive and more comfortable for the actors.

"It's a constant conversation that goes on between the puppeteers and the actors," Laqui said. "If there's something that's not comfortable or something that we think can be improved, they tweak it."

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