I’ve never really been a huge goer of Broadway shows. I mean, I like them when I do see them. Most of the time anyway. I just usually don’t find myself interested enough to buy tickets and go see many of them. And I don’t know why that is, because the ones I have seen (and there have been several) I am always walking away saying, “WOW! Why the heck don’t I do this more often? That was fantastic!”
Last night I was treated to yet another one of those Broadway show experiences. And yet again, I was blown away. This time it was the current show War Horse.
Now, I’ll preface this post by saying that I have not read Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel, or seen Steven Spielberg’s recent six-time Oscar nominated feature film of the same name and story. This was my first introduction to War Horse. I’d never really heard of the book until the movie came out. And I had been tempted to rent the movie a few times since it hit DVD, but I just never was interested enough.
So now I had the chance to see the stage performance. I surprisingly found myself growing more excited to see it as the date got closer. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the reviews I had seen about how amazing the show was.But don’t all shows get rave reviews? Or perhaps it was the really cool giant banner in the Peace Center window I walk by frequently, promoting the show. The one that shows the puppet horse with real-life rider. Very cool! Or was it just merely looking forward to a nice night out with my girlfriend. Whatever it was, I was excited. And I was NOT disappointed.
Hailed by the New York Times as “theatrical magic”, the entire show was superb – the story, the acting, the amazing lifelike puppetry of the horses – everything. But one of the things that impressed me most was how very little stage decoration, set or props there were. A backdrop that looked like a torn strip of paper stretched the width of the stage and hung halfway up above the floor. Its role of displaying pencil-sketched and animated backgrounds that changed with the story was refreshingly novel, and perfectly suited. Houses were represented by a single self-standing door and a single window suspended beside it. Fences were held by hand by actors, and made to look as if they were actually supporting the actors instead of the the other way around. And that was about it. Very minimal. Very simple. But never once too little. Credit to the cast for making that simple set seem so full.
But of course I have to mention the puppet horses. You won’t find a review of this show that doesn’t focus on them. At the heart of the show are life-sized puppets which bring breathing, galloping, charging horses to thrilling life on stage. Front and center, from foal to full grown horse, is Joey, the star creation of Handspring Puppet Company — not a real horse but such a faithful rendition of one that he stays in character even between scenes. It wasn’t hard to forget you were watching puppets and not real horses. So much so that my girlfriend Kim actually got angry any time something happened to one that she didn’t like.
After the show, I had the pleasure to talk with cast member Catherine Gowl, who was one of the puppeteers of Joey as a foal, and also played various others characters. Of course I had plenty of questions about the puppets. She described what it was like to work the horse puppets, for her and other cast members. She explained that Joey’s body — intricately constructed from cane, plywood, metal and nylon mesh — is borne and manipulated by a trio of puppeteers, all intensely trained to make the horses appear so lifelike.
Joey and his friend Topthorn are operated by a “Head” puppeteer, who works outside the frame, and “Heart” and “Hind,” who work within, all supporting, carrying and moving the puppet. Each puppeteer has an incredible job of not just moving it around the stage, but giving the horse life by using micro-movements — an ear or tail twitch, slight head nods and turns, even the task of simply breathing when standing still.
As its sixth anniversary nears, “War Horse” is still going strong. Besides the U.S. tour, the show is playing in the West End, Toronto and on Broadway, where it won five Tonys and Handspring received a Tony honor for excellence.
This entertaining treat is in Greenville right now, at the wonderful Peace Center, but not for long. After last night’s opening, it will perform two shows – a matinee and an evening show – today, Saturday and Sunday. And then it gallops to its next destination. There still are some seats available, so take my advice – get a ticket and be taken on an amazing journey. You WILL be amazed.