'War Horse' has a star of a steed

At a recent preview, the star trotting the stage of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater had a command that was palpable.

The audience seemed to watch his every victory with cries of delight, and shouts of dismay at his peril. Not a bad bit of scene-stealing, especially since the performer in question has no lines and is, in fact, made of leather, wire and cane. Even so, Joey, the life-size horse puppet at the center of the play "War Horse," has the power to eclipse anything — and anybody — on the stage.

"Sometimes we have to work quite hard to get him in the background so that the audience can actually look at something else," said Marianne Elliott, who with Tom Morris directed the World War I epic that opened in 2007 at the National Theatre of Great Britain and, after it won strong reviews and demonstrated box-office appeal, transferred to the West End. It is still a sellout there. A film adaptation of the story directed by Steven Spielberg — with a live horse — is scheduled to open in late December.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Theater production, featuring an American cast, opens Thursday.

The extraordinary bond between audiences and the horse puppet was not a foregone conclusion when playwright Nick Stafford began adapting the bestselling 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo. In the style of the classic "Black Beauty," the horse was the first-person narrator in Morpurgo's story of a colt bought at auction by an alcoholic farmer who, despite his son Albert's intense affection for the horse, sells it to the British cavalry for service in the Great War when he is full-grown. Desperate to get him back, 16-year-old Albert lies about his age, joins the army and is soon sent to the front lines.

But the creators of the play decided to change the perspective of the play — Joey would be a witness rather than a narrator of the events around him.

"When I told people that I was writing a play about World War I, a boy and a horse, which would be played by a puppet, they looked at me like I was mad," Stafford recalled. As he wrote, he left a stripe down the middle of each page that would be filled in with the puppet's actions — "Joey is scared, Joey is hungry, Joey wants to run away."

Joey — along with other horses and assorted animals that figure in the drama — was designed and fabricated by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of a South African company called Handspring Puppet. Joey, like his equine companion Topthorn, is manipulated by two actors moving in unison within the frame and a third standing alongside, operating the head. Three alternating teams create Joey and Topthorn at any given performance.

"The audience is asked to imagine life where there isn't any," said Morris.

Elliott said that at first glance the story sounded to her as "completely ridiculous, melodramatic and over-sentimental, easy to laugh at and impossible to do."

It was crucial, she added, to steer clear of any anthropomorphism. "We worked quite hard to make sure that the horse would not have any 'emotional' feelings toward Albert," said Elliott. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that the audiences would make their own anthropomorphic leaps — we tend to attribute human characteristics to everything around us, even our cars.

As part of the distinction between man and animal, the directors insisted to Seth Numrich, the 24-year-old actor who plays Albert, that to Joey he is, for all intents and purposes, "the oat monkey," a simian-like creature who feeds him. "We deliberately and perversely de-sentimentalized the story from the horse's point of view in order for the horse to play the scenes truthfully," said Morris.

"He even rehearsed in a T-shirt that said 'Oat Monkey,'" says Elliott, recalling that when they were auditioning actors for the part, they asked them to improvise with associate director Drew Barr, who stood opposite snorting and pawing like a horse. "We looked for the kind of actor who could embrace the challenge of that, developing a dialogue in which you were the only one who spoke."

Numrich says that he relates to Joey as a horse, in part due to the skills of the puppeteers. "They are always embodying the spirit of the horse," he says. "And the horse is always in the moment. It keeps me on my toes even though I'm never really aware of people working the puppet. The only eyes I ever look into are the eyes of the Joey."

Stafford, the playwright, said, "It was as though we had cast an actor who we didn't know at all and then he shows up and he is fantastic."

Though W.C. Fields may have admonished, "Never work with animals or children," Numrich says that Joey is a most "eloquent" silent partner. "The way the puppeteers react in gesture and sound make it always feel like a dialogue," he says. "I think the more that we, the cast, believe that we are acting with real horses, then the more the audience can believe that."

However, the emotional attachment of the audience to the horses can go only so far in a story that unflinchingly recounts the horrors of World War I. As magnificent as Joey might loom in the imagination, the human casualties must inevitably outweigh the fate of Joey and his fellow animals in this war to end all wars. In the play, a horse-loving soldier is told to save his pity and love for his dying comrades, not the horses. After which the soldier says to his steed, "You are a magnificent horse ... [but] I'm afraid magnificence isn't worth a damn here!"

"You look at a horse caught in barbed wire and shrieking and you share in the grief with the person sitting next to you in the audience," says author Morpurgo. "And you think, if that were a man crying out, as it should be.... After all, millions of men went through the most appalling suffering in this war. Ten million men died. Eight million horses.

"But I think somehow we can put our grief into these innocent creatures and come to an understanding of what war is, the awful stupidity, pointlessness and waste of it all," Morpurgo says.

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